In all-prospect trade Monday night, the Atlanta Braves acquired OF Alex Jackson from Seattle in exchange for pitchers Max Povse and Rob Whalen. Jackson, the sixth-overall pick in the 2014 draft, is the headliner here despite poor performance in pro ball because he was one of this decade’s most decorated high-school hitters.
In 2012, Jackson led all California high-school hitters in home runs with 17. He was a sophomore. Later that summer, Jackson went to Area Codes, where he had one of the event’s most impressive batting practices. His swing length was exposed in games during the event, but Jackson made an adjustment and shortened up the next spring and continued to rake. He hit well against elite prep arms in showcases during his entire high-school career. The track record for hitters who have consistent success at those events is very good.
Jackson caught in high school. He posted some plus-plus pop times due to his natural arm strength and quick arm action, but the body looked like it would eventually become too big to catch. Jackson worked out at third base and in the outfield as an amateur and has surprisingly good feet for an athlete of his size as a third baseman but not all scouts liked the arm action. By the time Jackson’s prep career was finished, he had been an Under Armour All-American twice, a Baseball America All-American three times and was named Baseball Prospectus’ Prospect of the Year before the draft. The Mariners drafted Jackson sixth overall in June of 2014 and signed him for a $4.2 million bonus.
With parts of three pro seasons now under his belt, Jackson’s stock has tanked. He was held back in extended spring training to start the year for performance reasons. His body has developed poorly and some of the quick-twitch elements of his swing have disappeared. Questions about Jackson’s makeup have been circulating since he signed. During his extended stay in Arizona this year, Jackson’s swing looked stiff and grooved. He was often late on even average velocity. As the year went on he became a bit more fluid and loose — and was getting better extension through contact — but he remained late on fastballs and would swing through hittable pitches. The bat path that once elicited dreams of both .300 averages and 20-plus home runs still exists, Jackson just doesn’t barrel many balls.
It’s hard to say what Jackson’s going to be. It’s possible that, with a change of scenery, the traits that made Jackson one of recent memory’s most successful prep hitters could reappear as quickly and mysteriously as they evaporated. The arrow is unquestionably pointing down here, but it’s an interesting buy-low opportunity for the Braves, who have a ton of minor-league pitching to trade. If Atlanta thinks a developmental overhaul on Jackson’s bat is in order, then there’s a chance they give him a try back behind the plate since Seattle’s original idea to fast track the bat by moving Jackson to right field has failed. Jackson will play next season at age 21.
The pitchers acquired by Seattle in this deal both have solid chances to yield big-league value but much lower ceilings than a resurgent Jackson. RHP Max Povse is a gargantuan, 6-foot-8 righty with a deceptive overhand delivery that makes it look like the balls is shooting out of his earhole. He sits 89-92 and will touch 93 or 94 on occasional with more downhill plane than horizontal movement. He has three average secondaries. He has some issues getting his vertical curveball and tilty, two-plane slider down beneath the strike zone. His strikeout rate dipped significantly after a promotion to Double-A. He has back-end stuff and an inning-eating body.
The other pitcher Seattle netted was righty Rob Whalen. Whalen made his major-league debut in 2016. The Braves acquired him from the Mets last year in one of history’s many Kelly Johnson trades. The thick-bodied 22-year-old has an upper-80s fastball that exhibits above-average spin rates up around 2400 rpms. He can cut and sink the fastball. He couples the heater, primarily, with an above-average, wiping slider in the low-80s. He can spin an average curveball and has a below-average changeup. Whalen could be a fifth starter or up-and-down arm if his command improves significantly, but his delivery features some effort and he’s a likely reliever. Whether or not his fastball plays in the big leagues remains a bit of a question.
Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.