With the minor league season at an end, the San Diego Padres promoted a pair of veteran farmhands to the big leagues: right-handed pitcher Jay Jackson and first baseman Cody Decker. Both are more interesting than the average Triple-A player in his late 20s. Let's look at Jackson; Decker will follow in a separate article later today.
Jay Jackson was originally a Chicago Cubs prospect, drafted in the ninth round in 2008 from Furman University. He was quickly successful, zipping through the low minors rapidly and reaching Triple-A in 2009, just over a year after being drafted. Understandably he ranked well on Cubs prospect lists at the time.
Alas, he stalled in Triple-A. Jackson spent parts of four seasons pitching for the Iowa Cubs in the Pacific Coast League. At times he was very impressive but he was inconsistent and would suffer through bouts of poor command. Eventually both his fastball velocity and his secondary pitches regressed and his ERAs kept moving closer to Boeing territory: 4.63 in 2010, 5.34 in 2011, and 6.57 in 2012. All of his component ratios slipped, the ERAs were not a fluke, and by the end of 2012 he was generally written off as a bust.
Jackson signed as a minor league free agent with the Miami Marlins for 2013. He was sent back to Double-A to rebuild his career and made some progress (3.16 ERA, 76/22 in 80 innings). He moved on to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2014, moved back up to Triple-A and got hit hard again (4.89 ERA). For 2015 he joined the San Diego Padres.
Initially a starter in the minors, Jackson ended up as a spot starter and long reliever by 2013, a usage pattern which did not help him solve his issues. The Padres changed that this spring, making him a closer. This worked wonders: between Double-A San Antonio and Triple-A El Paso Jackson had the best season of his career, posting a 2.42 ERA in 74 innings with an 86/18 K/BB and just 63 hits allowed, collecting 15 saves. All of his component ratios improved, some dramatically.
This isn't just a numbers thing: Jackson scouts better in the bullpen. As a starter and swingman his fastball was generally in the 90-92 range. As a closer he sits at 93-95, enough to make a difference. His mid-80s slider looked sharper this year. He'll throw in an occasional curve but in the bullpen he doesn't have to worry so much about using a change-up, a below-average offering in the past. His command and control are better in relief and in general he just looks a lot more comfortable in the bullpen according to PCL observers who have been watching him for years.
Jackson gave up two runs in less than an inning in his big league debut and it is quite possible that he won't be anything more than a 12th man on a staff. He isn't someone with much fantasy value, but it is fun to see a guy like Jackson work his way back from failure to success.