McGrath: Infield or outfield, M’s will find a way to get ‘Ajax’ in lineup

Staff WriterJune 6, 2014 

The Seattle Mariners selected outfielder Alex Jackson No. 6 overall in the MLB draft Thursday out of Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego. He was a catcher in high school.

COURTESY OF MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL

It was no surprise Thursday when Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig announced the Seattle Mariners had selected Alex Jackson with the sixth overall pick of the first-year player draft. Several mock drafts had projected Jackson — a right-handed hitter regarded to have the most power potential on the board — going to a Mariners organization on a perpetual search for offense.

The surprise was Selig’s identification of Jackson as an outfielder. For the past four years, Jackson’s primary position at Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego was catcher.

During a previously taped clip introducing Jackson on the MLB telecast, the “outfielder” noted that nothing provides more of a thrill to him in baseball than throwing a runner out.

“I can definitely say I model my game after Ivan Rodriguez,” said Jackson, referring to the retired 14-time All Star who caught 2,427 games, the big league record.

But as soon as the, um, outfielder was taken, MLB Network analyst John Hart, a former general manager, likened Jackson to the Washington Nationals’ Bryce Harper and the Tampa Bay Rays’ Wil Myers, examples of two high school catchers who have been converted to full-time outfielders.

Hart explained that Myers originally was drafted by the Kansas City Royals, who “took him as a catcher, let him start out as a catcher, but fell in love with his bat so that fast-tracked him.”

The Mariners might give Jackson a courtesy audition behind the plate, but make no mistake: They’re already in love with his bat.

“He’s probably going to hit himself to the big leagues,” general manager Jack Zduriencik told ESPN 710-AM in Seattle. “I think when you put kids behind the plate, it takes a little bit longer. We have a young catcher on our big league club right now, and we have pretty good catching in our system.

“This kid’s a core player for us, whether it’s at catcher, third base or the outfield. We’ve seen him play all three, but I do think we’ll put him in the outfield to start with and let him start swinging the bat.”

Jackson’s preference for catching, in any case, doesn’t figure to be a deal breaker when the Mariners meet with Jackson and his agent, Scott Boras, to negotiate a contract.

“I just want to get out and play baseball,” Jackson said on a conference call. “Outfield, behind the plate, wherever. I’m looking forward to going out there, having a great time, enjoying myself and playing hard.”

The Mariners, meanwhile, are looking forward to watching Jackson connecting on hits that will enable him to circle the bases in more of a trot than a sprint. In 135 career games at Rancho Bernardo — annually ranked among the premier high school baseball programs in the United States — Jackson had 47 home runs and 127 RBIs. He also excelled at national showcase tournaments.

“Our guys had a lot of looks at him,” Zduriencik said. “In their opinion, they thought he was the best hitter in the draft.”

There were some intriguing pitchers in the 2014 draft class, none more than Texas high school prospect Tyler Kolek, a right-handed power thrower who has drawn comparisons to such fellow Texans as Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens. But by the time the Mariners chose, Kolek already was off the board — he went to Miami at No. 2 — as were two top lefties, first overall pick Brady Aiken (Houston) and No. 3 pick Carlos Rodon (Chicago White Sox).

When Indiana University catcher Kyle Schwarber went to the Chicago Cubs and Minnesota picked high school shortstop Nick Gordon, the Mariners had to be ecstatic that Jackson was available.

The choice bucked Seattle’s traditional wariness of drafting outfielders with the first pick. Jackson joins a small group that includes two guys who need no introduction (Dave Henderson in 1977 and Ken Griffey Jr. in 1987) and two others who do (Tito Nanni in 1978 and Al Chambers in 1979).

If Jackson’s quest to reach the bigs is successful — sorry, first things first, if the Mariners sign Jackson, a University of Oregon commit who will have until July 19 to work on a deal — he’ll likely answer to a cooler nickname than one applied to the other Alex (some shortstop named Rodriguez) the Mariners selected in the first round of the 1993 draft.

“A-Rod” always sounded forced and contrived, the man’s personality in a nutshell. But power-hitting Alex Jackson as “Ajax,” with the emphasis on the “jax,” there’s a ring to that, no?

Homer’s “Iliad” portrayed Ajax (thank you, Wikipedia) as “vicious, fearless, strong and powerful, with a high level of combat intelligence.”

Welcome, Ajax, to the Seattle Mariners, and please don’t be insulted that they value your strength and power much more than your ability to throw out base runners.

It’s about priorities.

john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com

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