Jackson Cluff takes an at-bat during his time in the Arizona Fall League in 2021. (Jill Weisleder/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Jackson Cluff’s journey through the minor leagues

The journey of a minor league baseball player is always challenging. For Washington Nationals prospect Jackson Cluff, the journey has been filled with unique challenges.

After starring on the diamond at BYU, Cluff’s professional baseball career began in 2019 when the Washington Nationals made him their sixth round draft selection. While draft day is often one of the greatest days of an athlete’s career, it is far from an athlete’s desired destination.

Cluff’s started in the minors by playing half a season for the Single-A Hagerstown Suns in Hagerstown, Maryland. The COVID-19 pandemic claimed the minor league season in 2020, completely eliminating any chance for Cluff to play.

Ready to make strides in 2021, Cluff suffered a broken thumb just a week into his Double-A season in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Cluff returned later in the season and found himself in the lineup for about a month before ultimately breaking the hamate bone on his other hand.

Now in his fourth season in professional baseball, Cluff has yet to play more than 60 games in a season.

Not only have his injuries prevented Cluff from being on the field consistently, but they have also made things just as chaotic off the field.

“Minor league baseball is kind of crazy. When they tell you to move, you just pack up your stuff and start moving,” Cluff said.

Cluff has become quite the experienced mover, having moved locations seven times in 2021. Since the Nationals organization does not provide housing for its minor league players, Cluff has been forced to find his own living arrangements.

“I’m lucky to have a lot of ward members that help me out,” Cluff said.

In particular, the Nolan family in Harrisburg allowed Cluff to stay with them as he bounced around the country for rehabilitation and other minor league assignments.

Jackson Cluff throws to first base during a game in the Arizona Fall League. (Jill Weisleder/MLB Photos/Getty Images)

Cluff’s best stop of 2021 came following the minor league regular season as he participated in the Arizona Fall League. In 22 games, Cluff put up an impressive slash line of .342/.432/.456 while also winning the League’s Defensive Player of the Year award.

While fall ball in Arizona is developmentally focused a bit more relaxed than a typical minor league season, the competition is just as good. Players who are knocking on the door of a major league promotion are sent to Arizona for extra practice.

“From a mental and confidence side of it, you walk away with a little bit of confidence knowing you can play with those people,” Cluff said of his fall in Arizona.

Cluff is hoping to use his fall success as a spring board to a strong 2022 campaign. The Nationals’ roster is dealing with some infield turnover at the big league level early in the year, creating opportunities for young prospects in the organization. Cluff is ready to take advantage of any possible opportunity.

“If it doesn’t work out, I have no one to blame but myself,” Cluff said. “I have every opportunity in front of me to get where I want to go.”

Cluff had a prime opportunity in March when was invited to join the Nationals for spring training. While spring ball was shortened due to the MLB lockout, Cluff had the opportunity to play in several preseason contests with the major league squad.

“The biggest thing it provides is from the mental and competitive side. You see yourself on the field with guys who have had so much success at the major league level and its a reminder of how close you are,” Cluff said of his spring training experience. “It gives you the confidence you need to know that you can play with these people.”

Mike Littlewood, Cluff’s coach while he attended BYU, thinks Cluff has what it takes to play on baseball’s biggest stage.

“Jackson’s kind of a different guy,” Littlewood said. “He has a better idea than anybody because of his mentality of what he needs to do. He’s so mentally tough.”

Mike Littlewood (30) gathers Jackson Cluff (second in from left) and his teammates for a mound visit during BYU’s game against San Francisco in 2019. (BYU Photo)

Having been around college and professional baseball for 40 years, Littlewood knows what it takes to be successful. When it comes to professional baseball, everyone has talent. What separates those who succeed from those who don’t is their mentality.

It takes someone who is mentally tough to deal with injuries, a canceled season and the sheer chaos of moving seven times in one year. While the setbacks are never easy to experience, Cluff’s potential isn’t going unnoticed.

“I know the Nationals love him. I know the general manager absolutely loves him. All he needs to do is go play every day and he’s so good at that,” Littlewood said.

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