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Jackson Back and Looking to Nab Utility Outfield Spot With Tribe

Jackson Back and Looking to Nab Utility Outfield Spot With Tribe

| On 12, Mar 2017

The Cleveland Indians are going to need one extra outfielder and perhaps two when the regular season starts in April.

Right field is the only spot among the three positions currently fully settled. Lonnie Chisenhall will roam the spot when the opposition sends a right-hander to the mound, while it will be Brandon Guyer who will take over against an opposing lefty. That outfield position is known and well-manned.

The other two spots in the Tribe outfield have question marks. Tyler Naquin, who finished third in last year’s American League Rookie of the Year balloting, has done nothing this spring to suggest he is in danger of losing his spot in center field. However, he mostly plays against right-handed pitchers and was used in a platoon last year. His platoon partner was Rajai Davis, who is now gone to the Oakland Athletics. There is a door open there.

In left field, optimism grows by the day that superstar Michael Brantley will be able to take the field on or close to Opening Day. The one-time All-Star and former MVP candidate has been working his way back from a late 2015 shoulder injury that robbed him of all but eleven games last season. He is no sure thing to be ready when camp breaks and the regular season starts. Even if he is ready to go, manager Terry Francona may opt to carry an extra outfielder to share time, at least early in the season, to ease the burden on Brantley and his return from injury.

All told, there is one spare outfield spot definitely open and one that may be.

The favorites, as spring training started, were Abraham Almonte, whom the Indians added via a midseason trade in 2015, and veteran Austin Jackson, in camp on a minor league contract this year.

Jackson has been working himself back from a 2016 knee injury that wiped out the second half of his season and made him less effective than normal when he did play for the White Sox a year ago.

Jackson was held out of the first week-plus of preseason games as the Indians and their training staff evaluated his knee and wanted to make sure he was fully healthy before letting him go all out. It gave Almonte the first crack at making an impression in the outfield. Almonte has been less than impressive in the Arizona sun this spring.

The team hoped he would emerge in Goodyear, Arizona, after two half-seasons with the club the last two years that showed some promise. However, he seems to either be pressing to earn a job or may not be the .264 hitter he was in 51 games in 2015 and again in 67 games last year. A failed banned substance test cost Almonte the first half of the 2016 campaign and caused him to be unavailable for the postseason.

Almonte has never played a full season in the Majors. He has played parts of four years with Seattle, San Diego, and Cleveland. That trend could continue unless Almonte gets hot at the plate and soon. He has not been awful, but in six Cactus League games entering Saturday’s action, he was hitting just .235 with three RBI. That is not what the Indians surely want to see from a guy competing for a Major League job.

At age 27 (and turning 28 in June), Almonte probably is what he is at this point in his career – a fair hitter with decent speed and a little power. In 118 games with the Indians – just shy of a full season – the outfielder has six home runs, 14 stolen bases, and a .264 batting average. That is okay, but if someone with a little better skill set can emerge in the spring games, it would surely be optimal for the Indians.

Enter Jackson, a veteran of seven Major League seasons, who was viewed as a possible replacement to Davis. Jackson is a career .272 hitter, with a little bit of power and the speed to swipe around 20 bases per year. He does not have quite the blazing speed or prowess on the bases as Davis, who led the AL in steals last year, but is very adept in that category. He is also a nice veteran presence as a guy who has played in four postseasons. Three of those came from 2011-2013, when he was an integral part of the Detroit Tigers.

Jackson finally returned to game action on Thursday and quickly made an impression in going 1-for-3 with a home run. He will now have a shot to grab the reins for the utility outfield job that Almonte was not able to grip on to.

Truth be told, the Tribe would probably love to see the 30-year-old earn a spot on the Opening Day roster. That will take two things. The most important is for him to show that he is fully healthy. The second one will be to show a return to his pre-2016 form.

On the health front, the good news is that Jackson was the picture of health from 2010-2015. In his first six seasons, the 2010 Rookie of the Year runner up played in no less than 129 games in any given campaign. Last year’s knee injury was a first-time thing when it comes to major injuries for Jackson. It is a lot easier for a guy to come back after one injury than if, say, he had a series of them.

As far as regaining his form on the field of those first six seasons, that could be a different story. He will have to work his way back into game shape. Thankfully, there are still three weeks before the season opener in Arlington, Texas, for him to do that.

Hitting the home run the other day had to be a great feeling for both Jackson and the team. He will never lead the league in long balls, but he has hit double digits three times, including a career-high 16 in 2012. Just back in 2015, he hit nine bombs. The power and batting average are comparable to the departed Davis. Last year, while possibly playing through knee soreness for 54 games, Jackson’s power was nonexistent as he did not hit one out of the park. More disturbing and perhaps more a sign that he was playing through pain was just two triples. The speedster has led the AL in that category twice. However, a warning sign his speed could be slipping was just three three-baggers in 2015 between playing for Seattle and the Chicago Cubs. He did, however, have 17 steals that season.

When it comes to stolen bases, Jackson has thrice swiped 20 or more bags. He topped out at 27 as a rookie. If his knee is sound he can help a Tribe ball club that likes to run. The team led the AL in stolen bases last year. With Davis gone, that will be more of a challenge. However, a healthy Jackson could at least help to soften the loss of those 40 steals and still be a factor in terms of getting into a pitcher’s head while on the base paths.

Jackson, at his best, is probably a step or two better than Almonte. If Almonte were to win the extra outfield job, it would not be horrible for the Indians, of course. He is plenty capable of being a dependable utility outfielder. However, he does not have Jackson’s intangibles, nor has he come anywhere near hitting the career highs that Jackson has in his MLB tenure.

A healthy Jackson would be a great addition to a championship-contending ball club. He would be a great replacement for Davis as he can play center or left field. It is still a ways off before Tribe management has to make a final decision, but the early returns seem to be favoring Jackson and his veteran leadership breaking camp with the Indians.

Of course, if Brantley is not ready at the start of the regular season, Jackson and Almonte would both likely open the year with the Tribe. Then it would be a matter of who sticks for the long haul. Given health and a return to the form of his first six big league seasons, Jackson should have the stronger chance of helping the Tribe reach its end goal of a World Series title.

Photo: Tim Warner/Getty Images