One of the lower-profile, but potentially rewarding, offseason moves for a very busy Tribe front office was inking Austin Jackson to a minor-league deal.
With the cloudiness surrounding Michael Brantley’s 2017 health, it is tough to tell whether the low-risk flyer on Jackson was intended to add depth to a murky center field group, provide insurance for Brantley’s shoulder, or is simply an incentive-laden flyer that could not be passed up. Assuming Brantley is healthy, Austin Jackson’s name is tossed into competition with Tyler Naquin and Abraham Almonte for the Opening Day start in center.
Tyler Naquin burst onto the scene last year, but dreadful defense and a late season slump compounded by the inability to put the ball in play leaves his status as a capable starter in doubt. Abraham Almonte is certainly a viable option, but his bat provides little excitement and his defensive prowess is merely mediocre. Greg Allen and Yandy Diaz are internal options, but Allen has only registered 37 minor league games above A-ball and Diaz has only logged center field time in winter ball.
Barring a trade or other unforeseen acquisition, Austin Jackson has a legitimate chance to win the job.
After being an interesting free agent commodity in 2016, Jackson had an overwhelmingly ineffective season cut short by a meniscus injury, which the IBI’s own Brandon Bowers provided in-depth analysis on. Additionally, his 2014 campaign was also less than stellar. The redeeming quality for Jackson is that he just turned 30 last week, so there may be a chance, albeit slim, that he can get back to the premier center fielder that he was from 2010-2013 with Detroit.
From 2010-2013, there were few center fielders in baseball as promising as Austin Jackson. Although he only ranked 10th in fWAR for center fielders during that time frame, Mike Trout was the only younger player ahead of him on that list. Jackson provided a unique mixture of above average defense and an above average bat, and was a pillar of great Tigers teams that won three division titles and appeared in the 2012 World Series.
The most astonishing number from Jackson’s 2010-2013 is his 395 runs scored. Obviously, this is greatly aided by batting leadoff in a premier lineup, but when you only trail Miguel Cabrera in a major category, you have had some serious success.
Though he was effective in all four of these years, his 2012 season was a step above the rest. He finished that season with a slash line of .300/.377/.479 and posted a 134 wRC+, good for fifth among all center fielders. In addition to the success at the plate, he also finished 5th at his position in defensive runs saved.
Since that successful four year stretch with the Tigers, Jackson’s career has been a mixed bag. There have been reasons to be excited, as he seemed to start 2014 with a bang but faded after the Tigers traded him to Seattle as a part of the David Price mega-deal. His numbers in 2015 were encouraging, leading to a one year “show-me” deal with the White Sox which flailed with the knee injury.
Is it possible for Jackson to regain that electric form he demonstrated in Detroit?
The biggest issue in Jackson’s brief 2016 campaign was contact-related. Career low marks in wRC+ (79) and ISO (0.088) accompanied an increase in contact, meaning the general nature of his contact was less effective. This increase in contact was mirrored by a career low BABIP of .319, which is still above league average but lower than the threshold that he had established during his peak.
It may be foolish to expect Jackson’s bat to be rejuvenated, but some normalization towards pre-2015 levels should be anticipated.
The biggest concern with Jackson is on defense. His nearly Gold Glove caliber defense early in his career with the Tigers became roughly league average defense with the Mariners, Cubs, and White Sox. Defensive metrics are volatile and steep regression such as this in his mid-twenties seems abnormal, but the knee injury adds to the uncertainty.
Provided that the defense is not significantly impacted by the knee injury, it is easy to see where Austin Jackson has the edge on Tyler Naquin in center. Despite almost twice as many innings logged in 2016, Naquin made fewer “tough”/”highlight” plays than Jackson. Naquin may boast a stronger arm, but the experience and general position awareness of Jackson may render that point moot as well.
Fielding charts courtesy of Baseball Savant
A lot can and will happen before Opening Day, but I am fully expecting Austin Jackson to take the center field job and run with it. Unless Naquin has suddenly solved the high fastball and perplexing routes to balls in center, Jackson provides a more stable option that can make more consistent contact. If Gomes is to be the primary catcher, a lineup with Naquin and Gomes at the bottom would be far too contact-averse and could thwart rallies quickly.