Following the 2009 season, the Texas Rangers offered salary arbitration to their legendary catcher, Ivan Rodriguez, who had just served an abbreviated second stint with the franchise that he had starred with from 1991-2002.
When Rodriguez declined the offer in order to sign a two-year deal with the Washington Nationals, the Rangers received a supplemental draft pick late in the first round from Pudge's new team.
With that selection at No. 45, the Rangers chose a hard-throwing right-handed pitcher whom they had been monitoring earlier in the first round, Luke Jackson, of Calvary Christian High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Jackson had just completed a stellar senior season at Calvary Christian, in which he went 8-0 with a 0.90 ERA in 14 appearances, 10 of those being starts. Over 54.2 innings, he struck out 87, while only walking 19, and held opposing hitters to a .155 batting average.
His dominance of high school hitters attracted the attention of various scouts, and the Rangers were impressed enough to take a chance on drafting him, although he had already committed to attending the University of Miami during the following fall semester.
Considering his stated intent to attend Miami, in order to sign Jackson, the Rangers offered a signing bonus of $1.557 million, more than double MLB's recommended amount of $764,100 for the 45th slot in the draft. After careful deliberation and thorough discussion with his family, Jackson decided to forgo his educational opportunity for the time being, in order to begin his professional baseball career within the Texas Rangers' minor league system.
Luke was gracious enough to take some time out of his busy minor league schedule of long bus rides, team workouts and shagging fly balls during batting practice to speak with me over the telephone recently.
SG: What's been your first impression of the minor league lifestyle? How are you enjoying the long bus rides?
Jackson: "It's actually been great. I was placed in a great situation, with a great team, a bunch of good guys, couldn't ask for more.
It's a lot of work, a daily grind, but it's all worth it. I'm getting to pursue a dream, and all the work is worth it, definitely.
The bus rides aren't actually that bad. Some are pretty long, but we watch a lot of movies, take naps, try to catch up on sleep...not too bad."
SG: Is this your first real extended time period away from home?
Jackson: "No, not really, I've been away from home a lot before, so it hasn't really been a big deal. I was in extended spring training in Arizona, so that kinda prepared me for the experience."
SG: Do you feel any additional pressure being a first-round draft pick?
Jackson: "No, not really. I'm getting a chance to live a dream that I've had since I was young, so I'm going to put in the same work whether I was the first pick or the last pick. I try not to place pressure on myself, all I can do is work and keep pitching."
SG: Did you have any pitching idols when you were growing up? Anyone you tried to emulate or incorporate any of their styles or stuff into your repertoire?
Jackson: "Growing up in Florida, I was a huge Marlins fan, so my favorite pitchers were Josh Beckett and Josh Johnson. I didn't really try to copy their styles or anything, but they are both hard-throwing righties with great off-speed stuff, similar to what I'd like to be."
SG: Have you gotten an opportunity to meet Nolan Ryan yet?
Jackson: "Actually, I did. Right when I signed, I was able to meet him and speak with him for a while. It was really cool. To have someone like him to learn from and take an example from is a big deal for a young pitcher."
SG: What do you think of the Rangers' recent organizational philosophy of letting pitchers pitch to build up strength and stamina, rather than babying them and placing limitations on them?
Jackson: "I really like it. It kinda forces you to get stronger and develop your arm without holding back out of fear. With an example like Nolan Ryan to follow, it worked for him, so I believe it's a great idea."
SG: What do you think are some of your strengths, and what do you feel you need to work on in order to achieve your dream of reaching the big leagues?
Jackson: "I feel like my velocity is improving to a point where I'd like it to be. Earlier, I was between 91 and 97, but without consistency. Now, in the second half of the season, I'm sitting in the 93-95 range, which is where I'd like to be consistently.
As far as what I need to work on, the main thing is consistency, and throwing more strikes in general. I'm primarily a fastball/curve guy, and I really want to improve my changeup, throw more strikes with it consistently. If I can get my change to be a plus pitch, I'd really like my fastball, curve, change combo."
SG: What are the primary differences you've noticed between pitching in high school, and now pitching in the South Atlantic League?
Jackson: "The hitters are all a lot more patient. They don't bite at a lot of pitches that high school hitters might. One through nine, there is a lot of talent in the lineups throughout the league, so you have to concentrate more on each hitter, every at bat."
SG: Was it a difficult decision to pass up the opportunity to go to Miami?
Jackson: "Well, I spoke quite a bit with my dad, and my family and just came to the decision. It wasn't very difficult, they were really supportive of me and of whatever I wanted to do.
It definitely gets me started on the path through the minors quicker. I wanted to go to college, but it skips those first few years of pitching in college, where you could get hurt before getting drafted."
Currently, Jackson is honing his craft with the Hickory Crawdads of the South Atlantic League, the single-A affiliate of the Texas Rangers. After a brilliant start to his season, in which he went 2-1 with a 3.20 ERA, and 29 strikeouts in 25.1 innings over his first six starts, he has run into a rough patch in the second half.
Overall this season, Jackson is 4-5 with a 5.48 ERA, a 1.706 WHIP, and 5.6 walks per nine innings. While the command has been an issue, there are certainly positives, as he is keeping the ball in the ballpark, allowing only 1.1 HR per nine innings, and his 10 strikeouts per nine is an impressive rate.
Like many young pitchers, the stuff is there, but the command is a work in progress. From my conversations with him, I can tell that Luke is a quality young man with his head in the right place. He's keenly aware of what he needs to address to take his game to the next level, and seems determined to put in the requisite work in order to achieve the goals he has set for himself.
Despite the few bumps in the road late this season, Luke just turned 20, and is in the midst of his first season as a professional pitcher. With his gifted arm and quality makeup, he should progress well in Texas' system, an organization that has recently displayed a propensity for developing talented young pitchers. Texas has also shown a willingness to regularly promote hurlers from within, so if all goes according to plan, we may see Jackson work his way into the club's big league plans over the course of the next few years.
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