For most of the offseason, the Detroit Tigers have been without a starting center fielder. Sure, they have some internal options — and seem to be enamored with prospect JaCoby Jones as the long-term answer — but none of these players inspire confidence as an Opening Day starter. It has been frustrating to watch other teams sign affordable replacements like Jon Jay and Rajai Davis while the Tigers sit idly.
They may have been close to filling that hole during the Winter Meetings, though. According to the Detroit News’ Chris McCosky, the Tigers refused a trade offer that would have sent shortstop Jose Iglesias to the San Diego Padres for center fielder Travis Jankowski. The details are a bit murky, as we don’t know if San Diego offered a one-for-one swap or wanted another prospect along with Iglesias. It also would have forced the unproven Dixon Machado into a starting role at short.
That deal doesn’t seem to be on the table at the moment, but let’s take a closer look at Jankowski anyway.
Who is he?
Like many prospects from the northern parts of the country, Jankowski flew under the radar for most of his amateur career. He went undrafted out of high school, but was a compensation round pick (44th overall) by the Padres in 2012. He moved quickly through their farm system, and made his major league debut in August 2015. It didn’t go well — he hit just .211 with a .245 on-base percentage in 96 plate appearances — but the Padres kept him on their major league roster for all of 2016. His offensive performance improved considerably, resulting in a passable 82 wRC+.
More importantly, he has some luxurious hair.
And @FreddyJ_6's flow— San Diego Padres (@Padres) November 24, 2016
We're all thankful for that pic.twitter.com/AsjLM8Trzw
Why should we care?
Younger, leaner, faster, pick your adjective. Jankowski is a speedy player who adds a dimension that the Tigers haven’t seen for a while. He stole 30 bases in 42 attempts and contributed 3.1 baserunning runs (BsR) for the Padres last season. Minor league stolen base totals are often inflated, but he swiped 71 (!) bags at High-A Lake Elsinore after getting on base at a .356 clip in 2013. His speed also translates to the outfield, where he was worth +8 defensive runs saved and accumulated an ultimate zone rating (UZR) of 12.8 last season.
While some will dismiss Jankowski as a complete non-factor at the plate, there are a few positives. Minor League Ball’s John Sickels likes Jankowski’s limited offensive profile.
Long-term there's a chance he can improve that. The systems aren't sanguine on his batting eye, but in-person looks show a pretty refined hitting approach and feel for the strike zone. His swing won't generate power without major changes but it doesn't have to. Even a tiny gain in physical strength as he gets into his mid/late 20s would give him additional gap pop, and if he maintains his contact/discipline approach I could see him hitting .280 someday.
This is as rosy a take as I’ve seen on Jankowski’s offensive abilities, but it goes to show that, power aside, he does everything else well at the plate. Jankowski managed an 11 percent walk rate last season and lowered his swinging strike rate to 7.4 percent. If he can slash his strikeout rate to something approaching what he produced in the minors — he struck out just 12.5 percent of the time at Double-A San Antonio in 2015 — then he should reach base enough to get by.
Why should we stay away?
Ever since he was drafted, scouts have been questioning whether Jankowski will hit enough at the major league level to warrant a starting job. He barely passed that test in 2016, but only because his glove was among the best in baseball. Meanwhile, he only managed a .245 batting average and an abysmal .069 isolated power (ISO). His batting average was higher in the minor leagues — he hit .293 in 433 plate appearances at Double-A — but his power numbers were no better than what he produced last season. Players can get by with a lack of power, but they have to do everything else right to provide value.
In a vacuum, Jankowski sounds like a player worth taking a flyer on. Even if he doesn’t stick as the team’s starting center fielder, he would be a very capable fourth outfielder. However, in this case, the Tigers would need to part with their starting shortstop. Even if Jankowski keeps his head above water in the years to come, there is no guarantee that Dixon Machado would. Some may point at Jose Iglesias’ subpar 2016 numbers as a warning sign, but his elite bat-to-ball skills and speed down the line give him a higher floor offensively than Machado. While Jankowski is under club control for more years, a one-for-one swap puts the Tigers at risk of creating one hole to fill another.
Will he end up in Detroit?
It seems as if this ship has passed, but sometimes MLB front offices get a bit more desperate as spring training approaches. We have seen it in Detroit before — hello, Justin Upton — and either of the players mentioned in this deal might start to look more appealing as the free agent market dries up. But with how costly it would be to land Jankowski, taking a flier on a free agent like Austin Jackson or Desmond Jennings seems like the smarter move at this point.