The Indians are still making headlines as the report date for pitchers and catchers nears in Goodyear. Defending their American League pennant will not be an easy task, but the club made another effort to lessen that burden on Wednesday by signing outfielder Austin Jackson to a Minor League deal.
Jackson’s deal is non-guaranteed and is mostly incentive-based, and while the Indians have no immediate need for a starting outfielder, this deal is a no-brainer for the Indians. For Austin Jackson, who is entering his age-30 season, he gets a shot with the defending American League Champions and also gets a shot at redemption following his knee injury last June. (Check out the IBI’s Brandon Bowers analysis of his knee injury)
Jackson’s injury recovery should not overlap into camp, but there is always concern with athletes recovering from meniscus tears, regardless of sport. How effective can he be with the Indians given that he is recovering from such a serious injury?
Jackson was once a valuable prospect and apparent budding star in the league as he broke in back in 2010. He was part of the blockbuster trade that sent Curtis Granderson to the Yankees and he went to the Tigers where he ended up finishing second in the Rookie of the Year voting behind Neftali Feliz of the Rangers. Jackson finished with a 5.1 WAR and slashed .293/.345/.400 with 181 hits that season.
Jackson put together a solid stretch of play for three seasons in Detroit, where he tabbed WAR totals of 5.1, 4.9, and 5.4 between from 2010-2012, but his totals took a dip following that period. From 2013 through the 2016 season, Jackson averaged a 1.2 WAR while playing for four teams. Jackson also played through parts of 2015 with a sprained ankle.
Once a Gold-Glove caliber center fielder and one of the brighter, young talents of the game, Jackson has the ability to be a great defensive player when healthy. He adds that potential from the “what if?” standpoint. What if he can get healthy? What if he produces in the spring? What if he doesn’t have any setbacks with his knee? What if he outplays Tyler Naquin or Abraham Almonte this spring? I could go on and on.
There are also outside factors to consider that will go into what Jackson can and may contribute to the Indians in 2017. Jackson is one of two right-handed hitting outfield options that would have a shot at the Opening Day roster. The other would be Brandon Guyer, who is a lock to make the team. Considering the fact that Michael Brantley is still an unknown as to whether he will be ready for Opening Day, Jackson has a slight opportunity to not only compete for a roster spot, but he could make the starting lineup with a good camp.
The Indians have a need for some veteran outfield depth, but if the knee is still an issue in the spring the Indians won’t pressure Jackson to rush his recovery. He’s simply a depth option for them they can turn to as a right-handed hitting outfielder that could slide onto the roster if Brantley is opens the season on the disabled list, or fill half of the center field platoon with Tyler Naquin or Abraham Almonte. Jackson’s best opportunity may be in a platoon role, though he has no real platoon splits over his career as he’s just as solid against righties (.332 OBP AVG, .123 ISO) as lefties (.332 OBP, .127 ISO).
Why would the Indians make such a signing, given that they have ample outfield options already? Was the Jackson signing for the purpose of filling the void left by Rajai Davis after his departure in free agency?
Maybe it is just for that depth, or maybe the front office saw this as a potential redemption story waiting to happen. He’s still in the prime of his career and if he can return 100% from his knee injury and remain healthy, he’s a good bounce back candidate who could really improve the outfield defense for the Indians.
In any case, this deal was a no-brainer for both sides. The Indians got a potential rebound candidate at a low risk for an incentive-laden price tag, and Jackson put himself in a place where he could rebuild his career with a winning ball club. Jackson may never reach the level he once played at, but if he can return somewhere close to his pre-injury form, then it could be a win-win for all.
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Corey Crisan is a columnist for the Cleveland Indians and the Mahoning Valley Scrappers on Indians Baseball Insider on Scout.com. You can listen to him on IBI’s Farm Report Podcast and follow him on Twitter and Instagram @cdcrisan.