It is a scene I will remember forever, and one that many other Detroit Tigers fans will too. Austin Jackson, the Tigers' oft-maligned yet highly productive center fielder for four-plus seasons, jogged off the field on a late July afternoon. Moments ago, his team had traded him to the Seattle Mariners in a deadline-beating swap for David Price. With the 4:00 p.m. deadline bearing down, the Tigers pulled Jackson mid-game, and the Comerica Park crowd gave him a well-deserved standing ovation.
To say that moment was surreal would be a major understatement. It was an image that many baseball lifers have never seen before, and may never see again.
While the Tigers went on to win their fourth consecutive AL Central title, Jackson struggled in Seattle down the stretch, hitting just .229/.267/.260 with zero home runs in 236 plate appearances. He was worth -0.3 WAR, and his decline was one reason why the Mariners missed the playoffs by a single game.
After a bounce back season in 2015 -- he was worth 2.3 WAR in 136 games -- the 28-year-old Jackson is a free agent. While his recent numbers are concerning, Jackson has a strong track record in the Tigers organization and won't have a draft pick tied to his name. If Detroit is interested in a reunion, he could fill a versatile role in their outfield in 2016.
Who is he?
Tigers fans are plenty familiar with Jackson. Drafted by the Yankees in 2005, he was a key piece in the trade that sent fan-favorite Curtis Granderson to New York following the 2009 season. Granderson continued to shine in the Bronx, but Jackson was nearly as good, accumulating 15.8 WAR to Granderson's 16.2 for a fraction of the price. Jackson finished second in the 2010 AL Rookie of the Year voting, hitting .293/.345/.400 atop the Tigers' lineup. His best season came in 2012, when he hit .300/.377/.479 with 16 home runs and 103 runs scored. Jackson was worth 5.4 WAR that year, fourth among AL outfielders.
Following last season's puzzling drop-off, Jackson quietly rebounded in 2015. He hit .272/.312/.387 in 448 plate appearances with the Mariners, stealing 15 bases in 24 attempts. He played solid defense in center field, and was worth 2.1 WAR in 107 games. The Mariners passed him through waivers and traded him to the Chicago Cubs on August 31, where Jackson was used primarily as a bench option. He hit .236/.304/.375 in 79 plate appearances, and went 0-for-8 with five strikeouts in the postseason.
Why should we care?
While he has fallen off from his blistering pace earlier in his career, Jackson is still a productive player. He got on base at a reasonable clip last season while playing good defense, and got his feet wet in the corner outfield when he moved to Chicago. He also continued to punish left-handed pitching, hitting .281/.333/.437 with six home runs against southpaws. After two seasons with a negative ultimate zone rating (UZR) in 2013 and 2014, Jackson bounced back with a +7.2 UZR in 1048 2/3 outfield innings in 2015.
Why should we stay away?
Jackson could hypothetically fill a hybrid role in the Tigers' outfield, but his skill set doesn't exactly match up with the Tigers' needs. He's too talented to be a strict platoon player -- and would cost far too much for that role -- but doesn't hit well enough to stay afloat as a full-time left fielder. Jackson's defense in a corner would help prevent a few more runs than someone like Tyler Collins, but the Tigers do not have enough above average hitters elsewhere in the lineup to offset the drop-off in production in left field.
Jackson's track record with the Tigers is stellar, but his decline over the past couple years is concerning. He only walked in 5.1 plate appearances after arriving in Seattle in 2014, and wasn't much better (5.5 percent) in 2015. His walk rate rebounded slightly after moving to Chicago, but in a very small sample of plate appearances. His .311 on-base percentage would be fine as the starting center fielder (towards the bottom of the lineup), but is far too low if he is going to play a corner.
Will he end up in Detroit?
You don't often see players that were traded return to the team that originally dealt them, and there are other teams with a more pressing need in center field than the Tigers. Cheaper platoon options can be had to pair with Gose, and the Tigers would probably do better to look for a better hitter to fill their void in left field. It's not out of the question -- one wonders what a reunion with the Tigers would do to Jackson's offensive numbers -- but it doesn't seem very likely.
*For some reason, Steamer's normal projections estimated Jackson to only receive one plate appearance in 2016. Their Steamer600 projections are standardized to, you guessed it, 600 plate appearances).