The Washington Times - August 27, 2008, 11:27PM

By JAY LeBLANC
September 11, 2008

Following his senior year of high school, Austin Jackson had a major decision to make. As one of the top high school basketball players in the country, the Denton, Texas native had weighed numerous scholarship offers before signing a letter of intent to play basketball at ACC powerhouse Georgia Tech. But he also showed tremendous potential on the baseball diamond, prompting the New York Yankees to select him in the eighth round of the 2005 MLB draft and offer him a deal that included an $800,000 bonus. Having played both sports since childhood, Jackson was torn, but in the end he elected to accept the Yankees’ offer and pursue a career in baseball.

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Jackson’s pro career got off to a great start with the Rookie-level Gulf Coast Yankees that summer as he hit .304 and swiped 11 bases in 40 games, but the 6’ 1”, 180-pounder got a bit of a reality check in 2006 after moving up to the Class A South Atlantic League. Playing for the Charleston RiverDogs, Jackson stole an impressive 37 bases and was solid in the outfield, but he was overmatched at the plate. In 134 games, he hit just .260 with four home runs and 47 RBI and stuck out 151 times in 535 at bats. Jackson didn’t fare much better when he was sent back to Charleston to begin the 2007 season, matching the previous year’s .260 average while fanning 59 times in 235 at bats.

However, the Yankees decided at midseason to challenge Jackson with a promotion to the advanced Class A Tampa Yankees, and he responded in a big way. He hit .345 in 67 games and showed the ability to hit for power for the first time as a pro by swatting 10 home runs and knocking in 34, earning a late-season promotion to the double-A Trenton Thunder. Jackson extended his impressive campaign by earning Post-Season All-Star honors and ranking as the No. 2 prospect in Hawaii Winter Baseball. Baseball America ranked him as the best athlete and best defensive outfielder in the Yankees’ organization, as well as its No. 2 prospect behind only Joba Chamberlain.

Jackson followed up his breakout 2007 season with another solid year in 2008, hitting .285 with nine home runs, 69 RBI and 19 stolen bases in 25 attempts for the Thunder and reducing his strikeouts to a more manageable 113 in 520 at bats. The Yankees are more than pleased with the progress he’s made and see him as a potential future All-Star. It’s possible Jackson could have been a September callup if not for the fact that the Thunder are playing for the Eastern League title and it would have forced the Yankees to add him to the 40-man roster, but regardless, he’s put himself in position to make his major league debut at some point next season. I recently had a chance to speak to the 21-year-old:

Q: You passed up a basketball scholarship to Georgia Tech to sign with the Yankees. How difficult of a decision was that for you, and why did you decide to go the baseball route?

A: It was just hard for me because I’ve been playing both since I was young, since I was four or five years old. It was a hard decision because I wanted to play both professionally, but as I got older a little bit and talked to a couple dual-sport athletes, they said it was rough on their bodies and they thought their careers would have lasted longer if they’d have chosen just one sport. That had a lot to do with it, and to just try to keep up with my grades and play two sports in college I think would have been difficult, so I just chose one.

Q: Your game is still developing, but when it’s all said and done, do you think you’ll be a table-setter or a middle-of-the-order guy?

A: I definitely think that I could become a middle-of-the-order guy. I’ll just become stronger and put a little bit more weight on and find out a little more about my swing and just keep working on that aspect, and hopefully it will become true.

Q: Could you describe your approach at the plate? Do you try to get into the pitcher’s head, or do you just react to what’s thrown?

A: I react to what’s thrown. I try not to think too much up there. It’s already hard enough, so I just try to keep it simple and just try to react.

Q: What’s your favorite aspect of the game - is it hitting, defense or baserunning?

A: I like hitting and defense. Both of those are part of my game, so I like hitting and defense.

Q: What were your goals entering this season? Do you feel like you’ve accomplilshed them?

A: Yeah, I feel like I’ve accomplished most of my goals. I would have liked to cut down on my strikeouts a lot more, but, just talking with my hitting coach, he’s like “Don’t worry about that. That’s going to be something that … You’re going to strike out, so don’t worry too much about that.”

Q: Any plans for fall or winter baseball?

A: I’m going to play fall ball - Arizona Fall League.

Q: How soon do you think you’ll be ready to help the Yankees?

A: As soon as they’re ready for me, pretty much.

Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times and Mayor of the National Pastime web community. His Prospect Q&A column runs every Monday and Thursday throughout the season. He can be reached at jleblanc@washingtontimes.com.

Be sure to check out our previous National Pastime Prospect Q&A’s: Matt Wieters, Orioles; Ross Detwiler, Nationals; Adrian Alaniz, Nationals; Jake Arrieta, Orioles; Greg Golson, Phillies; John Shelby III, White Sox; Brandon Erbe, Orioles; Chris Marrero, Nationals; Jason Donald, Phillies; John Ely, White Sox; Nolan Reimold, Orioles; Michael Burgess, Nationals; Wes Hodges, Indians; Colton Willems, Nationals; Chris Tillman, Orioles; Dominic Brown, Phillies; Brandon Hicks, Braves; Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals; Nick Weglarz, Indians; Gorkys Hernandez, Braves; Beau Mills, Indians; Stephen King, Nationals; Brad Bergesen, Orioles; Fernando Martinez, Mets; Derrick Robinson, Royals; David Hernandez, Orioles; Jason Castro, Astros; Bobby Parnell, Mets; George Kontos, Yankees; Brian Matusz, Orioles; Matt LaPorta, Indians.