The Iowa Cubs righthander had his choice between baseball and basketball scholarships coming out of his Greenville, S.C., high school. While neither sport would have been wrong for him, baseball is proving to be a better fit.
As the season stretched into late June, the 22-year-old Jackson had gone 3-6, 3.48 through 17 games, 10 of them starts. He had struck out a modest 47 over 72 innings, owing most of his success to his stinginess with baserunners.
Jackson had issued just 15 walks, or 1.9 per nine innings. His 1.04 WHIP paced the Pacific Coast League, while his .226 opponent average ranked fourth.
"He's got that rubber arm. He can bounce back, and he's got some versatility," said Oneri Fleita, the Cubs vice president of player personnel. "He can be a starter and give you 200-plus innings or be a guy in the seventh, eighth, and ninth inning—and not everybody can do that."
Power has never been an issue for Jackson. His fastball reaches the mid-90s, after all. But his rapid acceleration through Chicago's system, from ninth-round pick in 2008 to Triple-A at the tail end of '09, is due to increased control of his curveball, slider, and changeup.
"He's a very good athlete and has the ability to throw four pitches for strikes," Fleita said.
Jackson vows to continue working on his offspeed pitches, "until I can do it in my sleep," he said.
While he now ranks as the top Cubs' pitching prospect still in the minors, Jackson was not a blue chipper on draft day two years ago. He played for Furman University, where he earned first-team all-Southern Conference honors as a junior in 2008. But despite success, Jackson had to deal with skeptics.
Sure, he did it at Furman, but how would he do at a big school?, went the thinking.
While playing for the Paladins kept him out of the spotlight, it offered many advantages. Jackson was able to start as a freshman and was not forced to specialize in pitching. An athletic 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, he played outfield and first base on days he didn't pitch and was his own DH on the days he did.
As a pro, Jackson carries a .222 average through 36 at-bats. He even cracked a home run last season for Double-A Tennessee.
"I work so that I don't look silly up there," Jackson said.
Playing for Furman also allowed Jackson to stay close to his Taylors, S.C., home, where his father Randy Sr. is a Baptist minister. In actuality, Jay is Randy Jr., and "Jay" is something his mother has called him since childhood.
Randy Sr. was a basketball player in his day, and Jay starred as a dual-sport star at the Christ Church Episcopal School. But Jay doubted that he would make it to the NBA given his height, so he opted for baseball in college. But his doubts about that sport persisted.
"I didn't think I would really have a chance to play baseball professionally until after my sophomore year," he said. "Everything was up in the air, but baseball came together."
Jackson keeps in constant contact with his family, particularly 19-year-old sister Jasmine, who has Down's Syndrome.
He didn't have to rely on texts and calls on April 19, when Jasmine and the rest of the Jackson family drove to Nashville to watch Jay pitch. The effort wasn't wasted: He allowed two hits and one walk in eight shutout innings.
"He could have pitched in the big leagues that night," Iowa pitching coach Mike Mason said. "Maybe we need to dip into the budget and bring them out here every game."
On The Fast Track
While that start was clearly a season highlight, Mason was just as happy with Jackson's follow-up on April 25. In that start, he allowed nine baserunners in five innings against Round Rock but held the Express to two runs.
"A lot of guys wouldn't have been as fortunate," Mason said. "He's learning to use offspeed pitches when in the past he probably wouldn't have. He still gets a little over-anxious, but he's got enough stuff to get away with it."
Mason and Iowa manager Ryne Sandberg have been steadying influences. Jackson has pitched for Sandberg, the Cubs' Hall of Fame second baseman, at three different levels in the organization, and Jackson said the two have learned together.
"You couldn't ask for a better manager. He manages with a lot of fire, and he's been a great influence on me," Jackson said.
This season at least, Chicago has shown a willingness to promote its elite prospects aggressively to the big leagues.
Both righthander Andrew Cashner, 23, and shortstop Starlin Castro, 20, jumped from Double-A to the big leagues before the end of May. In fact, Castro became the first big leaguer to be born in the 1990s when he debuted for Chicago on May 7.
Jackson said seeing the sudden ascension of Cashner adds no pressure.
"We're two different pitchers," he said. "They expect a lot out of him, but with me, there's still a lot of things they can do with me."
Fleita added that Jackson requires no mechanical or mental adjustment to reach the big leagues.
"He needs innings," Fleita said. "You hope when a guy like that gets called up, he's here to stay. He's got too much talent to be a guy who bounces back and forth."
Whether as a starter or a reliever, Fleita wouldn't say, adding only that Jackson has the talent to excel in either role.
Mike Malloy is a freelance writer based in Ames, Iowa