Last May, Quintin Berry was recalled from the minor leagues to replace an ailing Austin Jackson, who would eventually be placed on the disabled list with an abdominal injury. Berry filled in admirably at the plate in Jackson's absence, hitting .288/.356/.409 with seven stolen bases and 15 runs scored in 16 games. However, his glove in center field left something to be desired. Berry didn't make an error in the 175 2/3 innings he played in center field in 2012, most of which came with Jackson on the DL. However, he was worth -4 defensive runs saved and his UZR/150 was -14.3.
While UZR and UZR/150 aren't particularly reliable in that small of a sample, the dropoff in quality from Jackson to Berry in the outfield was clear. Add in the fact that Berry was flanked by the likes of Brennan Boesch, Delmon Young, and others, and you begin to wonder how exactly the Tigers managed to stay afloat without Jackson on the field.
This season, the surrounding talent has improved. Torii Hunter is still a plus defender in right field, where he will stay according to Jim Leyland. Andy Dirks was put on the disabled list just two weeks after Jackson in 2012 and missed over two months with an ankle injury, but looks to be healthy now. Avisail Garcia has recovered from a foot injury he suffered in Spring Training and has been hitting the cover off the ball in the minor leagues. Don Kelly is still Don Kelly. Matt Tuiasosopo is now the biggest defensive liability on the roster, and he hasn't started a game since May 1st.
That said, Jackson's absence still leaves a gaping hole in the Comerica Park outfield. Jackson has arguably been the best defensive centerfielder in the major leagues since he debuted in 2010. In that time, he ranks as such among qualified centerfielders in the following statistical categories:
- Second in defensive runs saved, at +43. He is tied with Chris Young of the Oakland A's. Cleveland's Michael Bourn is first, at +52.
- First in plays made out of zone (OOZ) with 337. Bourn is a distant second with 288.
- Fourth in UZR, at 12.1. Bourn leads this category at 38.3.
- Fourth in UZR/150, at 4.1.
- Third in assists, with 23. Adam Jones has the most, at 35.
- Sixth in fielding percentage, at .991.
Other than Bourn and Peter Bourjos, there aren't many players in the majors that can cover the outfield like Jackson. So how do his replacements stack up?
Unfortunately, there aren't many statistics to go on. Dirks has played a grand total of 117 innings in center field in his career, and has a UZR/150 of -69.0. Garcia spent just six innings in center during his brief stint with the Tigers last year. He has played center field in the minors, including 47 games with Double-A Erie last year. There aren't any advanced fielding statistics for minor league play, but Garcia has a .986 fielding percentage as a center fielder in his minor league career. His plus arm plays better in left field, however. Don Kelly has had the most success as a center fielder in the major leagues, with a 38.1 UZR/150 over the course of 198 innings as a big league centerfielder.
While Kelly's glove may be the best replacement for Jackson in center, his bat leaves a lot to be desired. Kelly is hitting just .190/.292/.286 this season and his career .625 OPS isn't much better. That won't get it done in the leadoff spot for the Tigers.
The obvious choice for the leadoff spot, whether he plays center or left field, is Andy Dirks, who has been coming on strong over the past couple weeks. Since the short period in late April where Dirks was benched due to some knee soreness, he has hit .318/.388/.568 with three home runs. Given Jackson's recent drop off -- he has hit just .246/.310/.354 since the team returned from their west coast trip -- Dirks' performance would actually be an upgrade at the top of the order.
The wild card in the Tigers lineup after this move is Garcia. He was slotted into the lower half of the lineup throughout most of his September call-up with the Tigers last year, hitting .319/.373/.319. Given his patient approach last season and in the minors to start 2013, he wouldn't be a bad candidate for the leadoff spot. However, I would venture a guess that he hits seventh or eighth in the lineup, depending on what Leyland decides to do with Alex Avila. If Garcia maintains the patient approach and solid contact rate that he showed last season, he should hold his own in the lineup, and may pick up a few RBI along the way.
Overall, it's clear that the Tigers need a healthy and effective Jackson in the lineup. With apologies to the gloves of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, Jackson is their best two-way player and probably their defensive MVP. His performance at the top of the lineup can be replaced if Dirks remains hot, but none of the other outfielders on the roster can match his defensive range and skill in center field. Even without the collective mess that were the corner outfield slots last season, the Tigers need Jackson healthy and back in center before too long.