If the Braves switch newly acquired prospect Alex Jackson from the outfield to catcher, his former position, there’s a new coach on staff who seems a natural fit to work with him behind the plate.
Jeff Datz, a former major league catcher hired in October as the Braves’ new roving catching instructor, was a scout in the Mariners organization when they selected Jackson with the sixth pick of the 2014 draft and signed him out of a San Diego high school for $4.2 million.
The Braves traded for Jackson (and a player to be named later) in a Monday deal that sent pitching prospects Rob Whalen and Max Povse to the Mariners. The Datz hiring hasn’t been announced yet by the Braves, but was confirmed by two people familiar with the situation.
While the Braves haven’t said a Jackson position switch is certain, they’ve indicated Jackson, 20, might move back to catcher, which he played as a three-time prep All-American before switching to the outfield in rookie ball in 2014. In addition to being among the top high-school power hitters in California, he was regarded as a strong defensive catcher.
Jackson was a consensus top-100 prospect — Baseball America had him No. 20 — before struggling in his first full minor league season in 2015, when he hit just .207 with eight homers and a .683 OPS in Single-A ball and saw his status slip.
He improved to .243 with 11 home runs, 55 RBIs and a .332 on-base percentage and .740 OPS in 2016 for the Mariners’ Single-A Clinton affiliate. That’s still nowhere near the offense most scouts expected of him when the Mariners made him the third hitter selected in the 2014 draft, but the Braves believe the right-handed hitter has substantial upside potential.
If he’s switched to catcher, Jackson would work plenty this spring with Datz, 57, whose playing career peaked in 1989 when he had a brief major league stint catching for the Detroit Tigers.
Datz won a league championship as a minor league manager in 1998 and was on the Cleveland Indians coaching staff from 2002 through 2009. He served as bench coach for the Baltimore Orioles in 2010 and joined the Mariners staff as third-base coach in 2011.
Datz was diagnosed with Level Two squamous-cell cancer on his neck in April 2013, but left the coaching staff for only three months and even continued to throw batting practice at home games while undergoing six weeks of radiation treatments.
He was reassigned to a scouting position with the Mariners in 2014 and scouted for the Yankees in 2016 before the Braves hired Datz to replace Joe Breeden.
Breeden had spent a decade as roving catching instructor with the Braves, who cut ties after the season. Datz was hired in time to join the Braves during the Instructional League in Florida after the minor league season.