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Arbitration case: Austin Jackson’s star is rising, along with his salary

Austin Jackson has been everything the Tigers hoped he'd be, and more.

Austin Jackson has the highest DRS rating in the league over the past three seasons
Austin Jackson has the highest DRS rating in the league over the past three seasons
Jason Miller

Over the past three seasons, Austin Jackson has led the American league in Defensive Runs Saved with 47. He ranks fifth in the American League in runs scored, ninth in plate appearances, 13th in hits, 13th in stolen bases, and twelfth in Wins Above Replacement (12.4). And he has earned a salary that is at or near the major league minimum.

That is about to change. The salary part. That’s because Jackson is eligible for arbitration for the first time in his career this winter, and he stands to get a nice raise for the 2013 season.

Since coming to the Tigers in the trade that sent Curtis Granderson to New York after the 2009 season, Jackson has been all that the Tigers could have hoped for, and more. With the exception of a couple of weeks spent on the disabled list early in the 2012 season, he has played almost every game in center field for the past three seasons. He has been the catalyst in the Tiger offense since his arrival.

More to the point, when Jackson has played well, the Tiger offense has been productive. When Jackson has a poor season, the Tiger offense has struggled. While he provides a steady glove in center field, making more out of zone plays than any player in the league since his arrival by a whopping margin of 82 plays over second place Ichiro Suzuki, Jackson also has provided Detroit with a stability as a lead off hitter in two of his three seasons as a Tiger.

Being drafted out of high school in the eighth round of the 2005 amateur draft, Jackson took a few seasons to climb his way up in the Yankee organization, spending five seasons in the minors but cracking Baseball America’s list of top prospects at No. 41 in 2008. His stock had dropped slightly to No. 76 when the Yankees traded him in the Granderson deal.

The Tigers plugged Jackson immediately into the void left by Granderson, both in center field and into the lead off spot, and the move has paid off handsomely for Detroit. He hit .293 .345 .400 .745, hitting four homers and stealing 27 bases as a rookie during the 2010 season, finishing second in the voting for American League Rookie of the year. Many were quick to point out that Jackson was due for some regression the following season, since his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was near historic levels.

Sure enough, Jackson’s average dipped in his sophomore season, along with most of his offensive statistics, but his defense remained steady and he was penciled in the lead off spot once again to start the 2012 season. The Tigers’ patience once again paid off, as Jackson posted an even more impressive .300 .377 .479 .856, this time with 16 homers but only a dozen steals. Jackson’s OPS+ of 130 was unexpected, but much appreciated in Detroit.

After the run to the World Series in 2012, it’s easy to forget that the Tigers struggled in the top three spots in their batting order in 2011, and there were big questions heading into the 2012 season about the top of the order. Those questions were answered when Jackson came out of the gate swinging, and the acquisition of Prince Fielder bumped Miguel Cabrera up to the three slot. Once Jim Leyland finally removed a struggling Brennan Boesch from the two slot, the top of the order was fine. It should be even finer with Torii Hunter hitting behind Jackson in 2013, at least on paper.

As he enters his first year of arbitration, Jackson should draw a salary near the top of his class. We ran the comps for first year eligible outfielders earlier in this series when we looked at the arbitration case of Brennan Boesch. I’ll repost the comp chart below.

Outfielders: First season of arbitration eligibility

Garrett Jones Pirates 2.158 2012 $ 2.25 M
Dexter Fowler Rockies 2.168 2012 $ 2.35 M
Colby Rasmus Blue Jays 3.000 2012 $ 2.70 M
Emilio Bonafacio Marlins 3.066 2012 $ 2.20 M
Brett Gardner Yankees 3.072 2012 $ 2.80 M
Donnie Murphy Marlins 3.075 2012 $ 0.56 M
Nate Schierholtz Giants 3.078 2012 $ 1.30 M
Seth Smith Rockies 3.119 2012 $ 2.42 M
Nyjer Morgan Brewers 3.120 2012 $ 2.35 M
Adam Jones Orioles 3.139 2011 $ 3.25 M
Andres Torres Giants 3.115 2011 $ 2.10 M
Hunter Pence Astros 2.156 2010 $ 3.50 M
BJ Upton Rays 3.126 2010 $ 3.00 M

What we see in the above chart is that, once you weed out the players who were part timers, due to either injury or other reasons, the salary range in this arbitration class of outfielders goes from $ 2 million on the low end, up to $ 3.5 million for Hunter Pence, the former Houston Astro. Note that Pence was a super two player, falling short of three years service time, while Jackson has an even three years in the major leagues.

MLBTR projects a salary of $ 3.1 million for the 2013 season. That’s a bit more than BJ Upton, and a bit less than Pence and the OriolesAdam Jones. It’s also a million bucks more than Boesch is projected to get, which is on the low end of the scale for a full time outfielder in this class.

Looking ahead, Jackson is only going to get more expensive to retain, but he is under club control for three more seasons of arbitration eligibility. Some good comps for him might be BJ Upton, Adam Jones, or Brett Gardner. Upton received salaries of $ 3 million, $ 4.825 million, $ 7 million in his final three seasons of arbitration, before signing a five year contract with the Braves that will pay him over $ 75 million for five seasons. Upton’s numbers were very similar to Jackson’s in his third season, but he has become more of a power hitter with a low average and very mediocre OBP in recent years.

Adam Jones received contracts of $ 3 million, $ 6.15 million, and $ 8.5 million for his three seasons of arbitration eligibility, but Jones signed a six year extension which was the largest contract in Orioles’ history. The deal was worth $ 85.5 million over six years, which included his last two seasons of arbitration eligibility, and four years into his free agency.

On the field, Jones has been a better all around player than Upton, hitting for a bit more power, and a higher average and OBP. He would be a good model for Jackson to follow going forward. Jones is 27, Jackson is now 23.

Gardner, who should probably be the Yankee center fielder, is in Jackson's class, being eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter, and he is projected to receive a salary of $ 2.8 million. His numbers show a bit more speed, solid defense, and excellent on base ability.

The future looks very bright for the Tiger center fielder, as long as he can repeat the numbers that he put up during even numbered years on a consistent basis. As his salary climbs inevitably upward, he remains a bargain for the Tigers, providing world class defense with a nice mix of power, speed, and hitting ability in the lead off position.

Next up: Alex Avila, All Star, or just average?

Previous Arbitration cases analyzed in this series:

Brennan Boesch

Max Scherzer

Rick Porcello

Doug Fister

Phil Coke