In a move that now feels like a lifetime ago, the Detroit Tigers traded Cameron Maybin to the Los Angeles Angels for some guy whose name we will most likely need the assistance of Google to remember on Opening Day. The trade left center field as open as a Walmart on black Friday. While there are internal options to fill the position, none of them feel like much of a sure thing, and that’s because they aren’t. If the Tigers are likely to make any kind of free agent signing this offseason, it’s probably going to be at center. Among the available bodies to man the position via free agency is a pretty familiar name, Austin Jackson.
Who is he?
If you are a Tigers fan and you don’t know who Austin Jackson is, please allow me to extend friendly greetings as I welcome you as a new fan of Detroit Tigers baseball. You’ve picked an interesting time to hitch your wagon to this franchise. For the better part of five seasons, Austin Jackson did everything but dive all over Comerica Park’s spacious center field. In his time sporting the Old English D he put up a .277/.342/.413 line, and up until the last year or so played pretty good defense. Then on a day many of us will remember for years to come Jackson was pulled in the top of the seventh inning in a game against the Chicago White Sox.
In the trade that brought David Price to Detroit, Jackson was shipped out to Seattle. Since then he’s spent some time playing for both Chicago professional teams. In 2015 he split time between the Mariners and the Cubs, putting up a .311/.385/.696 slash line and 17 stolen bases on his way to a 1.6 WAR season. He signed with the White Sox for the 2016 season, and played what could most generously be described as serviceable baseball right up until he tore his meniscus in June, and was shelved for the rest of the season.
Why should we care?
There are three reasons: JaCoby Jones, Tyler Collins, and Anthony Gose. That’s the depth chart at center field right now, and as much as I’d like to say any one of those guys is capable of taking over full time duties in center field, it’s just not very probable. Jones tore up the Arizona Fall League this year, but that’s kinda like being a high school kid who gets to sub in his old man’s 40-and-over basketball league. You’re putting up big numbers, but in the proper context it doesn’t necessarily mean too much. Through the parts of three seasons we’ve seen what we’re going to see of Collins, and it doesn’t add up to a full time center fielder. Then there’s Gose. The guy who started Opening Day in center field finished his season riding a bus around the country playing Double-A ball and probably wondering what the hell happened.
Jackson would bring a certain amount of reassurance to a position that is very much up in the air. He spent the better part of five seasons patrolling the vast expanses of Comerica Park, so he would certainly be familiar with how to play there. He’s no longer flashy in any sense of the word. His defense has regressed to somewhere in the neighborhood of league average, and his offense is nothing to get excited about, but he would be dependable if he can pick up where he left off pre-injury.
The selling point on Austin Jackson is that you know what you’re going to get, and you’re probably going to get it for pretty cheap. He signed a free agent deal for one year at $5,000,000 with the White Sox last year. Considering his level of performance in 2016 followed with the knee injury, he could probably be had for quite a bit less this year. He’s like the Toyota Corolla of center fielders. You’re not going to be super excited about it, but at least you’ll know what you’re working with.
Why should we stay away?
Since his 5.4 WAR 2012, Jackson has been on a steady decline. He posted WAR numbers of 3.6, 1.8, and 1.6 from 2013 through 2015. The scary number is the -0.1 he put up through the 56 games he played in last year before tearing his meniscus. The dip in his WAR isn’t driven entirely by his lack of offense. He did hit well below his career average last year, but his defense has hovered at average for the last few years and dipped just below it in 2016. His ability to rebound from the knee injury, and the unknowns surrounding his huge dip in performance last year make him an understandably iffy addition. The free agent market for center field isn’t terribly deep, but there are a few other guys out there who might be safer bets than Jackson, and would be worth pursuing first.
Will he end up here?
If we come out the other end of the hot stove season with the Tigers having dealt any players they could, and we don’t see a shiny new center fielder on the roster then it’s free agency. If it comes to that, Jackson is a strong possibility simply due to the fact that it’s not a great free agent class this year. As I said above, there may be better players, but Austin Jackson could very well be what we get. It wouldn’t be the most exciting acquisition. A move bringing Jackson back would be about as sexy as a pair sweat pants, but those sweat pants bring a certain familiarity and comfort that might be what the organization is looking for.