Trading Austin Jackson would create a bigger hole than it could fill in 2014 and beyond

Thearon W. Henderson

Last week, rumors floated around that the Tigers were listening to offers for Austin Jackson. Trading him would be a bad, bad idea.

To say that Austin Jackson struggled during the 2013 postseason was an understatement. Despite what turned out to be one of the biggest hits of the series in Game 4 of the ALDS, Jackson had an awful time making contact at the plate. By the end of the 11 games between two series, Jackson hit just .214/.298/.238 with a double, three RBI and 18 strikeouts in 47 plate appearances. For this, a vocal minority of fans want to see the Tigers start anew in center field in 2014.

Putting it bluntly, this is a very bad idea. Jackson has been one of the best and most valuable center fielders in the game since joining the Tigers in 2010, and it would be nearly impossible for even Dave Dombrowski to replace his value with someone else in 2014 and beyond.

Also, it goes without saying, but this post is why I think the Tigers should have locked up Jackson to a contract extension two weeks ago, or any time in the past 12 months.

Since 2010, Jackson has been a .278/.344/.416 hitter at the top of the Tigers' lineup. He has a career .344 wOBA and 107 wRC+. His wOBA and wRC+ are both tied for 14th among MLB center fielders with at least 1000 plate appearances since 2010. However, that list includes guys like Josh Hamilton, Bryce Harper, and Shin-Soo Choo, all of whom have spent the majority of their time in the last four years playing in corner outfield spots. If we limit the discussion to true center fielders, Jackson cracks the top 10 in both categories.

Player wOBA wRC+
Mike Trout .405 163
Andrew McCutchen .378 142
Matt Kemp .366 134
Curtis Granderson .357 122
Jacoby Ellsbury .353 119
Dexter Fowler .353 107
Adam Jones .347 115
Shane Victorino .339 111
Alejandro De Aza .335 107
Austin Jackson .334 107

Just based on this table, it would be difficult to see a reason why trading Jackson with no replacement in sight would be a good idea. However, we all know what kind of defender Jackson is as well. Here is where he ranks in various advanced defensive metrics among center fielders with at least 1500 innings played since 2010.

  • Third in defensive runs saved (DRS)
  • Fifth in revised zone rating (RZR)
  • First in plays made out of zone (OOZ)
  • Ninth in ultimate zone rating (UZR)
  • 12th in UZR per 150 games. However, he is ninth among players that still play center field and 10th among players that are still under contract with MLB teams.
  • Tied for third in assists

When you combine the two, it's easy to see why Jackson is so beloved among statheads. He ranks sixth among center fielders in wins above replacement since 2010, with 14.6. That's an average of 3.65 WAR per season. There were only eight center fielders in baseball with at least 3.7 WAR in 2013. Only one of them was paid a lower salary than Jackson, and that guy was Mike Trout.

The biggest knock against trading Jackson might not even be the numbers he has put up, but rather the numbers that his replacement would be likely to produce. He is the only major league caliber center fielder in the Tigers' organization. Unless Dombrowski acquires a center fielder from outside the organization, the Tigers would be looking at a replacement level center fielder -- or worse -- in 2014. Can Jackson's 3.65 wins be replaced elsewhere among the roster without a massive increase in payroll? I highly doubt it.

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