Texas Ranger minor league pitcher Luke Jackson was one of the success stories of the Rangers farm system for much of 2014, having success at AA Frisco, earning a promotion at AAA, and seeming like a lock to get a cup of coffee in the majors when rosters expanded in September, if not sooner.
And now? Jon Daniels has announced Jackson isn't coming to the majors this year, even though he's going to have to be added to the 40 man roster this offseason, and he may not even be in the rotation anymore for the Express -- his last start was on August 21, and he pitched 0.2 IP in relief on August 26.
Jackson's problems started basically as soon as he got to AAA. For Frisco, he had a 3.02 ERA in 83.1 innings, striking out 83, walking 24 and allowing just 58 hits, after putting up a 0.67 ERA in 27 innings for Frisco last year. He appeared ready for the challenge of going to Round Rock when he was moved up at the end of June.
His first three performances for the Express were mediocre -- he allowed 2 runs in 3 innings, 3 runs in 4 innings, and 3 runs in 5 innings in his first three starts, striking out 17 batters in 12 innings and walking 5. His pitch counts were a significant problem in those games, however -- he needed 246 pitches to get through those 12 innings, an average of 20.5 pitches per inning, which is way too high.
His fourth outing was a disaster, a 3.1 IP, 6 run performance where he walked 3 batters and struck out only 2. He followed that up with a pair of outings where he struck out 3 batters and walked 2 in each, going 5.2 IP (allowing 3 runs) in one, going 5 IP (allowing 4 runs) in the other.
Then disaster struck again, as Jackson couldn't record an out in the 2nd inning of a start at Nashville. His final line ended up being 1 IP, 6 hits, 9 runs, 3 walks, 2 Ks and a home run allowed. Since that game, things continued to tail spin...he allowed 4 runs in 3.2 IP against Tacoma, and then 5 runs in 4.2 IP at Salt Lake, striking out 5, walking 5 and hitting a pair of batters, his 96 pitches not even getting him through five innings.
That outing was followed up by the relief performance in Las Vegas on August 26, where he threw only 14 strikes out of 34 pitches, walked 4 batters, and allowed a hit while registering just a pair of outs before getting pulled.
Jackson's line for Round Rock now stands at 36 IP, 49 hits, 42 runs, 6 homers, 26 walks, 38 Ks, and a 9.75 ERA. While you'd like to chalk it up as Jackson just wearing down because of more innings, he's actually thrown fewer innings this year (119.1 IP) than he has in 2013 (128 IP) or 2012 (129.2 IP).
This is not, its fair to say, what the Rangers were hoping to see from Jackson at AAA, particularly with the struggles Jackson is dealing with to throw strikes in his last few outings. With Round Rock's season coming to a close on September 1, Jackson is probably only going to have one more appearance for the Express, if he pitches again at all.
Jackson, who turned 23 a few days ago, is still a very good prospect, and you have to hope that this is just a bump on the road for him. However, there have been questions for some time about whether he can stick as a starter, or if he instead profiles as a late-inning reliever, and the struggles in AAA so far would seem to be a data point in favor of the bullpen.
Regardless, how Jackson responds to this adversity will be something to watch for next year, as he'll likely start the year in AAA. A strong early performance could put him in the mix to be an injury replacement in the major league rotation at some point in 2015. Continuing struggles could, conversely, put him on the reliever career path.
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