WASHINGTON - Jackson Cluff, 23, was camping a few miles from his family home in Utah last month when he got a telephone call from Mark Scialabba, the assistant general manager, player development with the Nationals.
Scialabba had good news: he wanted Cluff – with less than a season or pro baseball experience – to report to the alternate site in Fredericksburg and be part of the Nationals’ 60-player pool. That was a pretty large jump for Cluff, an infielder who was drafted out of BYU in 2019 and played at low Single-A for the Hagerstown Suns last season.
“I was pretty excited. I had just got back into town and was with my family,” Cluff told Federal Baseball this week.
The promotion to the alternate site has allowed Cluff to get at-bats against pitchers with tons of experience above his own.
That includes Aaron Barrett, who has Major League experience and returned to The Show on Sept. 7, 2019; Jackson Rutledge, the top pick of the Nationals in 2019; fellow right-hander Cade Cavalli, the top pick this year out of the University of Oklahoma, lefty Tim Cate, a second-round pick in 2018 out of the University of Connecticut who pitched for Hagerstown and high Single-A Potomac last season; and Tyler Eppler, who pitched at the Double-A level in 2017 in Pittsburgh’s organization and the past two years in independent ball.
Cluff, who had been working out at BYU during the shutdown caused by the pandemic, said this has not been a wasted year.
“There are still things you can do to improve your game,” he said. “You can still get better in the cage. Even if I didn’t come out here, I would not think it was a wasted year. It may not be as good as playing every day. Coming out here every day and see live pitching and practicing every day with the guys definitely adds some icing to the cake.”
“It gives you even more confidence going into next year,” added Cluff, who also worked this summer taking online classes towards his BYU degree in finance.
“I got to face above-average competition at whatever level I would have been at.”
Cluff played just two years of college ball at BYU and was draft-eligible as a sophomore. But his story is somewhat unique, as he was away from baseball for two years after his freshman season at BYU as he served a two-year mission in the Atlanta area with the Mormon church.
“Right away they played me a lot at short,” he said of joining Hagerstown last season.
“We will start with some positives; I felt pretty confident there. I didn’t feel much of a difference from the college level.”
But the transition facing minor league pitching was a bigger challenge.
“The biggest difference was at the plate – learning to adjust your approach to pitchers that are a lot better” than college hurlers, he said.
“The biggest challenge is to try to slow yourself down when opponents are trying to speed you up.
“At Low-A, you have a lot of (pitchers) who are not very polished. You have some pitchers who are effectively wild. It brings a new perspective – maybe a little bit of a challenge to judge balls and strikes when a guy is not consistently around the zone. It was a lot better than I was seeing in college, that is for sure.”
Cluff was drafted exactly 30 years after his father, Jackson – but in a much different manner.
The elder Cluff was drafted out of BYU in 1999 by the Boise Hawks, at the time an independent professional team. Soon after, Boise became a farm team of the Angels and Jackson Cluff played just one season in the minors before an injury ended his career. The elder Cuff coached his son on travel teams.
“It was a lot of fun for him,” Jackson Cluff said of his father, who now works for Bank of America. “He was 24 when he got drafted. He told me stories about the big leaguers he played against. I think he played against Mike Piazza. His right fielder when he got to Boise was Garrett Anderson, who played for the Angels for a long time (from 1994 to 2008).
Jackson Cluff is one of five children. His mother played volleyball in high school and so did a sister.
Cluff was born in Colorado and saw many Rockies’ games in person as a young boy. He was 8 when the family moved to Idaho, and he went to high school there.
After he enrolled at BYU, his family move to Utah.
Once he joined the 60-player pool (along with Drew Mendoza, a teammate last year in Hagerstown), Cluff was eligible to be traded at the end of August.
“You can’t really worry about things you can’t control,” he said. “Unless you hear anything different, we are signed to play for the Nats.”
And that is good news for Washington.
“He loves to play. During the stretch where we were away from the game (starting in March), he was working diligently at BYU,” Tommy Shields, the co-field coordinator in player development, said. “He is an incredibly hard-worker, he can run and he has a great arm.
“We really love Jackson Cluff. This camp has been a great opportunity for him to face better pitching and get a lot of at-bats.”
And some of those are against pitchers with Double-A experience or higher.