For the last four-plus seasons, Austin Jackson has been one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball. By nearly every statistical measure in the book -- "old school" or sabermetric -- Jackson ranks among the top defenders in the game. Now, with Jackson on his way to Seattle, the Tigers are in need of a new center fielder. None of the current options will be as good as Austin, but how much of a decline should we expect?
Jackson's arrival in Detroit was met with a lot of questions -- some of which we're asking again now. In particular, many wondered whether Jackson, who had not yet made his major league debut, would be ready to replace fan favorite Curtis Granderson from day one. The answer was a resounding "yes." Jackson hit .293/.345/.400 in 675 plate appearances during his rookie season, amassing 3.9 WAR at the top of the Tigers' lineup. Over the course of the past four-plus seasons, he has hit .277/.342/.413 with 15.7 total WAR.
So, who wants to fill those shoes?
Rajai Davis took Jackson's place in center field during today's game, so it stands to reason that Davis may be the everyday center fielder going forward. Offensively, Davis is a career .271/.318/.382 hitter, but this does not tell the whole story. Davis has a career .648 OPS against right-handed pitching, but a stellar .802 OPS against lefties. The difference in on-base percentage -- .297 to .360 -- is also important to note, given Davis' excellent speed on the basepaths.
Additionally, advanced metrics suggest that Davis is an average defender in center field. He has a career UZR of -0.3 and has been worth three defensive runs saved in roughly 3239.2 innings in center. His numbers are slightly worse in the corners, but this stands to reason. Davis' strength is his speed and range, while his arm is lacking (especially for a corner outfielder). He may be one of the rare players who struggles in a corner spot, but can make things work in center.
Another possible option in center field is Andy Dirks, who has spared Jackson the occasional inning or two over the past few seasons. Dirks is currently on a rehab assignment with the West Michigan Whitecaps and has not played in 2014. His career sample of just 115 innings in center field is far too small to draw any inferences from advanced metrics, but his numbers in a corner outfield slot from 2013 are absolutely stellar. Dirks was also named as a finalist for a Gold Glove last season. Offensively, Dirks has bounced around quite a bit. He put up a passable .703 OPS in 2011, then torched AL pitching for an .857 OPS in 2012. Last season, he posted a career-worst .686 OPS in 484 plate appearances.
The Tigers will call up outfielder Ezequiel Carrera to replace Jackson on the 25-man roster, though it remains to be seen how much he plays. Carrera was swinging a hot bat earlier this season, but was passed over for J.D. Martinez when an outfielder was needed. Thankfully, that one worked out.
Carrera has not seen a lot of playing time in the majors, totaling just 405 plate appearances across three seasons for the Philadelphia Phillies and Cleveland Indians. He is a career .251/.306/.339 hitter with two home runs and 22 extra base hits to his name. He also has 18 stolen bases in 24 career attempts. However, this has not tempered Tigers' fans expectations. Carrera has been the Mud Hens' best hitter in 2014, at .307/.387/.422. He only has 15 doubles to his name, but has stolen 43 bases in 56 attempts. Defensively, Carrera has not logged enough time to make any judgments based on advanced statistics, but it's safe to assume that he will be at least a step behind Jackson if asked to play center field.
No matter who gets the bulk of the playing time in center field going forward -- my guess would be Davis -- the Tigers will miss Jackson's bat and glove in the lineup. Will the gamble pay off? It's tough to say. Despite losing Jackson, however, the trade has Tigers fans excited for the rest of the season.