On Monday, the Braves traded pitching prospects Robert Whalen and Max Provse for Mariners outfield prospect Alex Jackson. Whalen and Provse project as below-average starting pitchers while Jackson has offensive potential but has disappointed so far in his pro career. Even if Whalen and Provse reach their reasonable projections, the Braves could make out just fine in this deal, if Jackson can bounce back to what teams thought he would be coming out of the draft.
After Jackson was selected 6th overall in the 2014 amateur draft, he has slashed .233/.327/.399 in 793 plate appearances in his first three seasons of pro baseball, all in Low-A ball or below. He’s also struck out 223 times while walking 70 times.
However, even with the disappointing performance so far, scouts and prospect writers still see potential. Even after a .207/.318/.365 season in 2015, both MLB.com and Baseball Prospectus ranked him #94 on their pre-2016 prospect lists. Jackson is still young. He turns 21 on Christmas Day. He’s battled a shoulder injury, sustained in 2015, which may explain a portion of his struggles.
Jackson was drafted as a catcher but moved to the outfield as a pro so that he could focus on offense. The Braves moving him back behind the plate is a possibility that would greatly increase his value, if he can handle the position, by taking some of the pressure off the bat to carry him. And the Braves, of course, could use a catching prospect or two.
At his age and with his tools and skills, the Braves get plenty of upside in Jackson, but also some risk. But they traded from strength, pitching, and they traded two pitchers with lower ceilings than some of their other pitching prospects. And, of course, pitching is always a health risk, even with seemingly safe or high-ceiling arms.
Provse is 23 and Whalen is 22. Whalen has already pitched in the big leagues. So the Braves traded low-ceiling, big-league-ready arms for a player with risk but a lot of potential. I don’t want to be critical of the Mariners here. I understand why they traded a disappointing player for two guys who look more or less like sure big league arms. And we should trust that they know more about Jackson than we do. But clearly they were sick of being patient with a player who is still very young and the Braves took advantage. The Mariners traded a guy with the tools and young to still be an exciting player for two pitchers who don’t seem all that exciting. Again, I understand the move from the Mariners’ perspective, because the bottom line is Jackson didn’t perform. So my comments are not a condemnation of the Mariners as much as praise of the Braves’ creativity.
The Braves have a lot of options here. They could continue to run Jackson out as an outfielder. They could try to convert him to catcher. If he fails as a catcher, at his age, they could always move him back to the outfield. They probably have another couple of years before giving up on him is truly warranted. This is a slight gamble but it was worthwhile and one that could pay off big, if Jackson takes steps to actualize the potential he showed as the 6th overall pick.