Rajai Davis and his 43 stolen bases have gone off to Oakland. Superstar left fielder Michael Brantley is not a 100 percent guarantee to rebound from multiple shoulder surgeries to regain his form that made him an MVP candidate in 2014.
Cleveland, looking to bolster its outfield depth, could end up with a major steal – pardon the pun – in this free agency class. Veteran outfielder Austin Jackson was inked to a minor league contract with an invite to spring training on Wednesday. If he can rebound from a knee injury that cost him the second half of the 2016 campaign with the White Sox, he will be a fine replacement for the 36-year-old Davis.
Jackson, who will turn 30 on Wednesday, does not steal quite as many bases as Davis, but has proven to be good for 20 or so per season throughout his seven-year career. He has exhibited a little more power and ability to get on base than the elder Davis. An ability to play all three outfield spots, as he showed in 2015, makes him a great fit in an outfield that will see a lot of platoon play, regardless of whether or not Brantley is fully healthy all year.
Jackson had his best years at the start of his career with the Detroit Tigers from 2010-2014. He hit a career high .300 in 2012 in 137 games (543 at bats). That year he also put up his career bests of 16 bombs and 66 RBI. He is no power hitter, but he is fast. He has twice led the league in triples and swiped 20 or more bases three times. His top total came as a rookie when he had 27 steals. He was second to closer Neftali Feliz, and his 40 saves, in the 2010 AL Rookie of the Year voting.
Jackson was traded away from the Tigers to Seattle at the 2014 trade deadline. It was a three-team deal that saw Detroit land superstar hurler David Price from the Rays. In 2015, he had a decent year with the Mariners and then the Cubs after another deadline deal. He helped Chicago get to the National League Championship Series that year. Between his two stops, he played 136 games with nine home runs and 17 stolen bases.
The White Sox signed him as a free agent last winter to a one-year, $5 million pact. It was thought to be a solid contract at the time for a guy who had been pretty productive for his career. Jackson struggled a bit last season in getting acclimated to Chicago’s south side. He had just two steals in three chances through 54 games before a knee injury wiped out the remainder of his 2016 campaign. He did hit a respectable .254 in 181 at bats.
Jackson’s injury was a torn meniscus, something that he should be able to fully recover from. However, one has to wonder if he will still have the same speed that he had earlier in his career. The Tribe is paying very little to find out. If he goes to spring training and shows he is not ready to return to the big leagues, Cleveland is out nothing. If he proves he can still be a guy to steal 20 bases, hit eight to ten home runs, and bat about .275, he could be a real steal with a contract that reportedly has a base salary of $1.5 million and includes $4 million in incentives.
Jackson would fit right into manager Terry Francona‘s outfield that is expected, again this season, to rely heavily on platoons. As of now, Lonnie Chisenhall and Brandon Guyer are virtual locks to reprise their right field platoon that was very strong for the Indians over the last two months of the 2016 regular season and postseason.
The veteran Jackson has more of a chance to factor into the left or center field equations, where there are more questions marks. Right now, it would seem last year’s rookie sensation Tyler Naquin and Abraham Almonte are the leading candidates to split the center field duties. However, neither are absolute locks, both having a minor league option remaining.
Naquin, who finished third in the AL Rookie of the Year race, tailed off at the end of last season and was very quiet in October. If he needs some additional minor league seasoning, the Indians will need help in the outfield. Almonte has hit .264 in each of two half seasons for the Tribe. He is a decent hitter with above average ability on the bases. However, a healthy Jackson could push Almonte to Triple-A.
Left field is where the biggest question mark lies. Brantley hopes to make a full recovery from a late-2015 shoulder injury that wiped out nearly his entire 2016 campaign. If he can get back and be even close to the form he had as a budding superstar in 2014 and 2015, the outfield and batting lineup will improve over even last year’s very good results. However, if the shoulder continues to not respond or if he continues to have set backs, Jackson could find himself as the Tribe’s every day left fielder.
Jackson is a nice addition to the outfield in that he can hit both lefties and righties and at a decent clip. He has hit over .250 against both over the last three years. The right-handed hitter is a little better against left-handed pitching. That would mean, given complete health and lack of young guys taking steps back across the outfield, he would be best platooning with the left-handed Naquin, who hits righties far better than lefties.
Not that it is needed all that much any more, but Jackson also brings a long postseason resume, comparable to the departed Davis. For most of the returning Indians from the 2016 squad, last season was their first real exposure to postseason play. Jackson has gone to the playoffs four times, playing in 40 postseason games, with 141 at bats. Even on a team that just went to the World Series, someone with that kind of experience is helpful. Davis and Mike Napoli were two outstanding veteran leaders for a team that had to finish growing up last year. Jackson, even at 30, can fill that kind of role.
Jackson has a pretty good shot at helping the Indians this year. First he has to prove the knee is 100 percent healthy. If it is and he is stealing bases and hitting at that .275 pace again, he would certainly be one of the club’s top four or five outfielders. He may not steal 40 bases but he can give the Indians a lot of what they lost with Davis’ departure. Just as important, he is an experienced outfielder who could help ease the pain if Brantley is not ready to go or does get injured again. Davis and, later in the year, Coco Crisp helped fill the Brantley void last season. In a perfect world, as former Indians general manager and president Mark Shapiro was fond of saying, Brantley will stay healthy. In that world, Jackson is also healthy and makes the Tribe out of spring training. The Indians would not have to rush Brantley into every day service and could give him a couple of days off per week to keep him from putting too much on his recovering shoulder too soon.
Jackson could certainly help this year. He is just the type of additional player that is perfect for a team like the Indians, one with plenty of talent already looking to get back to the top.
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