SARASOTA, Fl. - Five years ago, Conor Jackson was one of the better hitters in the National league. He batted .300 in 144 games for the Arizona Diamondbacks, playing first base and left field almost equally. At 26, Jackson looked as if was ready for a long and fulfilling career.
But, in 2009, the former first round pick of the Diamondbacks was felled by Valley Fever, an infection that’s endemic to the Southwestern U.S. It’s caused when a fungus enters the lungs.
It derailed Jackson’s career, limiting him to 30 games that year and 60 the next. He’s bounced around since then, playing with Oakland and Boston in 2011 and not at all in the major leagues last year.
In December, the Orioles signed him to a minor league contract. He’s got lots of competition to make the team. Chris Dickerson, Lew Ford, Travis Ishikawa, Steve Pearce, Jason Pridie and Trayvon Robinson are all first basemen or outfielders not on the roster. Throw in Russ Canzler and Danny Valencia, both on the roster, and you can see the odds are against Jackson. All eight have substantial major league experience.
But, only one of them hit two home runs on Sunday.
“This is a guy that’s hit .300 in the big leagues with 600 plate appearances in a year. Not a lot of them floating around,” manager Buck Showalter said after the game.
He’s often comparing the candidates he has to make his ballclub now with the ones he had in his first spring training in 2011. Showalter keeps talking about the tough choices he’ll have to make.
The Orioles will need a backup first baseman to Chris Davis and maybe someone who can help in the outfield and be a DH. Jackson can do all that. Some of the others can’t.
“Wherever they put me, I’m going to play. I can play left, I can play right. I can play first, so I think I’m keeping all those gloves available,” Jackson said.
Showalter, loath to publicly criticize and sometimes to overly hype players would only say Jackson is being considered.
“He’s in the mix with some other people we’re looking at for that role,” Showalter said.
In the camp’s early days, Jackson was slowed by a back injury, but now he’s caught up.
“You can’t impress anybody when you’re in the training room. You’ve got to be on the field, you’ve got to play to show what you can do,” Jackson said.
He’s 5-for-16 so far, a .313 average with the two home runs and a double. Peace, who can also play the outfield and first base is 4-for-8. Pridie has two home runs and a .333 average.
With Adam Jones gone for the World Baseball Classic, there may be three weeks worth of opportunities for others to pick up his at-bats.
“Coming into camp, I knew that I had to come out strong right away to have a chance to make the club,” Jackson said.
“That’s my goal, you’ve got to focus, every day and every at-bat, grind it out, you’ve got to take it like the seventh game of the World Series. That’s kind of my mindset right now.”
Jackson has a lot of strengths. In his best years, he hit for average, and for some power, too. From 2006-08, he hit 42 home runs. Jackson also is the anti-Davis when it comes to strikeouts. In his big league career he has walked nearly as often as he’s struck out and his on-base percentage is 80 points higher than his .271 lifetime batting average.
Last year, he suffered a broken hand and Jackson played only 88 games for Triple-A Charlotte in the White Sox organization, but that wasn’t so bad. The Valley Fever was gone.
“In 2009, there was a lot of times when I didn’t think I would play baseball again. It hit me that hard. I missed a full year. When you miss a full year of your career, it’s difficult to get back on track. Once you come back to the game and you’re platooning and you lose your starting job, it’s tough, it’s tough,” Jackson said. “Last year was beneficial to go down to Triple-A and get all those at-bats.”
In 2012, he played in 88 games and hit .277.
“I think last year, the ability to go down to Triple-A and play every single day was something I missed,” Jackson said.
“You know the last two years, I was platooning in Oakland and Arizona, and it’s tough to get your stroke back, especially when you missed all of 2009. I think last year helped me hone down and get those every day at-bats. I’m happy where I’m at this spring, but there’s a long way to go.”