On May 13, Austin Jackson was placed on the DL for the second consecutive year, this time with a strained hamstring. The next day, the Chicago Cubs signed budding star Anthony Rizzo to a seven year, $41 million deal with two team-friendly options at the end of it. Though seemingly unrelated, Rizzo's contract and Jackson's DL stint symbolize an opportunity -- a general league-wide trend of locking up budding young stars before they enter arbitration and eventual free agency. Many players want to avoid the risk of injury and waiting to sign as a free agent. Therefore, they accept a discounted value in exchange for security.
Could the Tigers take advantage of this economic opportunity? Although Jackson already signed for $3.5 million this year and has two years left of team control (he becomes a free agent in 2016), I believe the Tigers should try to ink him to a long-term contract, even if it just comes at a minor discount compared to what he would receive in a couple of years on the free agent market.
Throughout the minors and majors, Jackson has shown the ability to make adjustments and improve. While almost all big league players have needed to successfully make adjustments at some point in their careers, Jackson's improvements have been striking. After finishing third in the majors in strikeouts in 2011, Jackson cut his strikeout rate by over 5 percent and increased his walk rate from 8.4 to 10.9 percent.
The results stemmed directly from major mechanical changes to his swing. He eliminated his leg kick and shortened his swing, generating a more stingy two-strike approach. His power actually spiked, as he belted 16 home runs, easily his best total as a professional.
Jackson got off to a fast start this season before landing on the DL, with encouraging peripheral statistics that suggest his plate discipline and contact rates have sustainably improved. With a walk rate of 8.4 percent, strikeout rate of 19.9 percent, and a stellar line drive rate of 26.5 percent, good enough for 13th in all of baseball, Jackson looks primed to continue giving the Tigers good offensive production as a centerfielder. His 166 plate appearances this year give him a large enough body of work to trust in similar sustained output, according to past research.
With Jackson having established himself as an offensive contributor, his defense can shine. Advanced defensive metrics love Jackson. The Fielding Bible: Volume III ranked Jackson as having saved the Tigers 42 runs from 2009-2011, tied for first among centerfielders with Franklin Gutierrez of the Mariners. His defensive runs saved and UZR were more modest last year, though there is a reason that the Fielding Bible comes out with a new volume every three years. Defensive measurements are admittedly inexact, and it typically takes a few seasons for the metrics to accurately reflect performance.
At just 26, Jackson enters his offensive prime and still projects to have some solid years in center field ahead of him. While he may not rank at the top of runs saved in the next volume, Jackson still makes great reads and should have above average speed in center for years to come. You will also rarely see Jackson lay out for a fly ball, suggesting that he does not risk injury as much as the average centerfielder.
Before Jackson wins a Gold Glove and breaks out for an all-star caliber season, the Tigers ought to do themselves a favor and take advantage of whatever discount he will accept. B.J. Upton signed a five-year, $75.25 million contract as a free agent last off-season. Michael Bourn's five-year, $60 million deal was viewed as a bargain by many. Although Scott Boras represents Jackson and generally encourages his clients to wait and test the free agent market, his struggles with Bourn and veteran starter Kyle Lohse this past off-season make it more likely that Jackson will consider accepting an extension now.
After agreeing to a one year, $3.5 million contract with the Tigers this year, Jackson could earn up to $25 million over the next two years after pre-arbitration date negotiations. If Jackson maintains his overall production over the next two years, he would likely command a contract greater in value than Upton's, especially given increased TV revenue. The Tigers should try to sign Jackson to a deal in the ballpark of five years, $65 million, providing him with long-term security and saving at least $10 million in terms of productive value. For instance, the Tigers could get Jackson's production over the next couple of years at about $25 million. However, acquiring a player of his value for three years in free agency, starting in 2016, would likely cost close to $50 million.
With Jackson on the DL and the recent wave of young players signing extensions, which could lead to revenue sharing conflicts and eventual restrictions on extending young players, the Tigers should act now. Jackson's two DL stints and high strikeout rate of the past do not forecast his future nearly as well as his solid walk rate, reduced strikeout rate, and ability to make good contact.