Photo credit:Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Keep or Walk: Jay Jackson went from minor-league contract with an invite to spring training to fan favourite with the Blue Jays
By Evan Stack3 months ago
The 2023 Blue Jays had a great bullpen, one of the best the team has ever had. There were major contributions from familiar names like Jordan Romano and Tim Mayza, additions such as Jordan Hicks, and strong performances from a handful of others. One of those other names is a pitcher who was more than likely not projected to play a critical role in this team’s success. That pitcher is Jay Jackson.
It’d be hard to have a more adventurous and up-and-down season than what Jackson went through last year, as his MLB transactions page logged five call-ups, five options to Buffalo, and an unfortunate designation for assignment on the final day of the regular season. Even his signing to the team had its twists and turns; Jackson was signed to a minor league contract in January, released in March, and then re-signed to a split contract just a few days later.
The journey proved to be well worth it for both Jackson and the Blue Jays, as the now-36-year-old posted the best MLB season of his career. Jackson tossed 29.2 innings, displaying a 3-1 record, 2.12 ERA, 8.2 K/9, and a 0.91 WHIP. If you read between the lines, you’ll see Jackson was at the epicentre of the Aaron Judge eye-peeping fiasco, a 16.2 scoreless innings streak, “taking one for the team” by pitching 2.2 innings of relief after Alek Manoah only recorded one out against the Astros, and a clutch late-inning performance during a July game in Chavez Ravine against the Dodgers.
Jackson’s success coupled nicely with his effervescent personality and his constant smiling face quickly made him a fan favorite. Whether it was something as small as recording an out or something as big as getting out of a jam, Jackson’s smile would be the very next thing you’d see on the TV screen. Hashtag SMILE – if you know, you know.
As I mentioned earlier, Jackson was seemingly caught in a number crunch and was DFA’d on the final day of the season. He had a legitimate case to have a spot on the postseason roster, but nonetheless, he heads into free agency with a prosperous 2023 to build on.
The case to keep Jackson
This is a point that I’ve referenced a lot and I’ll reference it again, but most of Toronto’s bullpen is back for 2024, and that means that there will be limited spots up for grabs. If it comes down to analyzing performances, it’d be hard to overlook what Jackson was able to do last season.
Jackson spent the majority of the season as the “27th man” if you will. But even with that role, Jackson still found his way into a handful of high-leverage situations. He certainly may be looking to leverage his stellar season into a larger role with another team, but if he’s willing, he’d be a luxury to have in the “in case of emergency” capacity again. There’s a chance that Jordan Hicks will get a large payday with another team, and there’s always a chance that the Blue Jays could trade a name like Yimi Garcia or Trevor Richards and use Jackson as a middle-innings-man instead.
The case to let Jackson walk
The other side to the point of having a deep bullpen is that there may not be a spot for Jackson in 2024. Not only do the Jays have several relievers under contract returning, but they have some younger options in their system who they might prioritize giving an opportunity.
With his performance last year, Jackson has probably earned a true major league contract, and surely one of the 29 other teams would show enough interest. With the Jays recently announcing that they’ll pick up Chad Green’s two-year, $21 million contract, Ross Atkins has already thrown a lot of money into their bullpen payroll.
Not only does Jackson take a spot in the bullpen, but he would also occupy a 40-man roster position. Furthermore, Toronto already has several right-handed options out of the bullpen, this may be a different story if Jackson was a lefty.
Jul 14, 2023; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays relief pitcher Jay Jackson (35) hugs teammate catcher Danny Jansen (9) after defeating the Arizona Diamondbacks at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports
Whether he re-signs with the Jays or not, I can see either result happening for Jackson. The journeyman found his best successes in Toronto, so maybe he won’t go searching for a ton of money if things went well there and he wants stability. But, as I mentioned earlier, he has also earned himself more money if he wants it. Part of me also thinks Jackson’s spot came down to him or Chad Green, and the Blue Jays made their decision there, but maybe I’m wrong about that.
Regardless of what happens with Jackson, he deserves a lot of credit for what he endured physically and mentally last season. Jackson had to juggle the constant travel back and forth from Toronto and Buffalo with the birth of his son back in July. His son, JR, was born 15 weeks premature, but was able to come off of his I.V. in the NICU a few weeks later. Jackson used any off days in the season to travel to visit his son.
A 162-game season already presents limited opportunities to see family members, but a situation like Jackson’s is one that can weigh a player down. Being able to perform the way he did while balancing his son’s status is a major testament to Jackson as a baseball player and as a man.
Wherever he goes, Jackson will always have fans in Toronto.
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