Flying Tiger: Austin Jackson Might Be Detroit's Next Rookie of the Year

Johnny LawrenceCorrespondent IApril 20, 2010

DETROIT - APRIL 09: Carlos Guillen #9 of the Detroit Tigers congratulates Austin Jackson #14 after scoring in the 8th inning while playing the Cleveland Indians during Opening Day on April 9, 2010 at Comerica Park in Detroit, Michigan. Detroit won the game 5-2.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Less than six months into his Tigers career, Jackson is working to dilute Detroit's memory of former fan favorite Curtis Granderson.

From day one, management hoped the 23-year-old would fill Granderson's role: to man Comerica Park's cavernous center field and set the table for the big boppers.

Jackson has quickly surpassed the expectations thrust upon him.

Last spring, Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson dubbed him the best athlete in the New York Yankees organization—and there was plenty of evidence to back that up.

In high school, Austin starred at wide receiver, swam the 100-meter freestyle, and participated in soccer and track. He also played hoops well enough to earn a full ride to Georgia Tech as a point guard. He turned down the offer five years ago in favor of signing an $800K deal with New York.

Baseball America has been hot on Jackson's trail since he began his professional career. In 2008, the publication ranked him the Eastern League's best defensive outfielder (Trenton Thunder), while the next year he earned the International League's best hitting prospect distinction with Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

The center fielder's star has been budding for half a decade, and the Tigers have given him a chance to showcase his talent daily.

After 12 starts, Jackson leads all rookies with a .333 batting average. His 18 base knocks lead first-year players, and he is also tied with superstar Miguel Cabrera for the team lead. With four doubles, two triples, and two stolen bases, he is burning up the basepaths.

Though it may be premature to drool at his impressive numbers, Jackson's scorching start is reminiscent of four well-known Tigers. Harvey Kuenn, Mark Fidrych, Lou Whitaker, and Justin Verlander all blew the competition out of the water on their way to winning the American League Rookie of the Year Award.

Will Jackson become Detroit's fifth honoree?

Paving his way to stardom, he is determined to keep a level head. He has embraced the pressure of replacing a Detroit favorite and sought out the advice of professionals that came before him.

Jackson recounts a defensively-focused conversation he had in New York with Mickey Rivers, a 15-year MLB veteran and Yankee great.

"He told me that he made a lot of plays look easy by how he positioned himself. You can cut down five or six strides that way, and that can be the difference between an out and a double."

A perfect fielding percentage shows Jackson applied this practice to game situations. Ready for whatever is hit his direction, Jackson tells himself the same thing every play: "Get ready to dive." He employs a highly aggressive approach that has brought him much success early on.

Mr. October served as his mentor before his westward shift and still chats with Austin on a regular basis. In his opinion, Jackson could earn a Gold Glove Award and an All-Star appearance before long.

"Austin will hit .300 with 25 homers, drive in 100 runs, and have a chance to win a Gold Glove. ... I have nothing but the highest regard for his aptitude, coachability, and his ability to fit into a new team. He is going to be an All-Star."

Tigers fans hope to see Reggie's prediction play out in 2010.