Jackson and the long-term center field problem

 Center field was a position of disappointment for the Seattle Mariners in 2014. When the club acquired Austin Jackson at the trade deadline, a solution for the problem was believed to have been found. Not only for the remainder of the season but for 2015 as well.

Of course things didn’t go so smoothly for the former Detroit Tiger who posted just a 53 wRC+ in 236 plate appearances. But the consensus is that Jackson is a good bet to rebound in 2015. He certainly is a better player than his performance indicated.

Initially it was surprising to see the Tigers deal their star centerfielder. Even though David Price was the return, the club was deep in a pennant race and the loss of Jackson was noticeable in the outfield and the lineup.

It was a banner year in 2012 for Jackson who posted a 134 wRC+ with 16 home runs alongside very strong defensive play at a premium position. His numbers took a step back in 2013, but overall, it was another solid season by the numbers.

What exactly went wrong in 2014 is still up for debate. Jackson had posted a .273/.332/.398 slash line prior to the trade — all three marks being a couple of points below his career line. Upon arriving in the Emerald City, it appeared as if Jackson forgot his ability to hit for power on the plane. His ISO with the Tigers was .126 compared to .031 with the M’s. He didn’t hit a home run after the trade deadline either. His defensive play held up but he was dreadful offensively and never once moved from the leadoff spot.

Jackson is under contract for 2015 as an arbitration eligible player but will than be eligible for free agency. He won’t turn 28 until February and is poised to enter the free agent market at a prime age. Another poor showing could dramatically affect his value. Though his 5.2 fWAR campaign in 2012 is still in recent memory and hard to ignore .

There hasn’t been any reported extension talks between the two parties, yet. It’s more than likely that Seattle would like to see a rebound from their centerfielder before committing further years and dollars. By the time that hypothetically happens though, it may be too late. Jackson figures to be one of the better free agent outfielders available at the end of the upcoming season.

Considering the lack of center field depth currently in the Mariners organization it’s conceivable that the club could still look to extend Jackson this offseason. Let’s take a look at some recent extensions handed out to outfielders similar to Jackson in age.

Obviously Hunter Pence is a superior player to Jackson and was coming off a significantly better season than the Mariner had in 2014 — Jackson posted a 1.0 fWAR total in 2014. Despite the inflated free agent market, five years and $18 million per season seems like a huge stretch for Jackson. Though if he can put together a campaign similar to his 2012, those numbers could become a target for his agency.

Martin Prado is a bit of a different case given his positional flexibility. But he too was coming off a career year, and would receive a four-year guarantee. The $10 million average annual salary could probably serve as a benchmark for an extension now or a free agent contract in less than one year’s time.

Perhaps the best comparable on that list is Brett Gardner  The New York Yankees locked up their outfielder last winter after handing Jacoby Ellsbury a seven-year contract that pushed the incumbent centerfielder, Gardner, to right field.

Gardner has a career slash line of .265/.346/.390 compared to Jackson’s .274/.336/.402 line. Both have career wRC+’s of 103. Both are regular bets to swipe 20 bags, but Gardner has a pair of 40-plus stolen base seasons. He’s also a better fit at the top of the lineup with better walk and strikeout rates. Each has had some outstanding defensive seasons — Gardner with 35 and 23 DRS in 2010 and 2011 respectively and Jackson with 29 in 2011 — and both are generally regarded as above average defenders.

The Yankee outfielder was able to secure a $52 million guarantee over four years coming off a very good, but not outstanding season. He did produce a combined 10.9 fWAR between 2010 and 2011. Aside from an injury-shortened 2009 season Gardner has been a very consistent player. One thing we do know is that consistency tends to pay well in free agency.

Assuming Jackson does rebound in 2015 and produces a season in the 2.0-to-3.0 fWAR range he should be able to secure a multi-year contract with a similar valuation to the Gardner deal. Melky Cabrera received a three-year, $43.5 million deal from the Chicago White Sox this winter. That’s an outfielder who’s best season to date — 4.5 fWAR in 2012 — was cut short due to a PED suspension. Cabrera struggled mightily in 2013 due to what turned out to be a benign tumor in his lower back. He did rebound in 2014 for 2.6 fWAR and managed to cash in.

Seattle waiting to negotiate an extension with their centerfielder is only logical. It’s equally likely that Jackson would prefer to have a better platform season for contract talks, too.

One thing that should be concerning for the Mariners though, is how aside Jackson, the organizational depth at center is very weak. James Jones saw regular playing time in center before Jackson was acquired, but the speedster doesn’t hit enough to play regularly and is better defensively in a corner spot.

[pullquote]Talk has been had about moving Miller to the outfield in the spring, but the shortstop position isn’t secured by someone else yet. There is also the chance that he struggles to handle the defensive side of the game like Ackley did early in his transition.[/pullquote]

Leon Landry, 25, figures to start the season with Triple-A Tacoma and really is the next player on the depth chart. He has 910 plate appearances at the Double-A level, but didn’t hit particularly well there.

There’s a chance that the M’s will look to acquire some middle outfield depth over the next calendar year. The jury is still out with regards to whether or not Jackson is the long-term solution in center. Gareth Morgan, the M’s No. 2 pick in the 2014 draft, could be a future solution. However the 18-year old is still very raw and has minimal minor league experience.

If Jackson does rebound in 2015, the Mariners should be happy to pay him what he’s worth for 2016 and beyond. More often than not players tend to head elsewhere upon reaching free agency though. Jackson is likely no exception to that.

There’s similar risk in locking Jackson up prior to the start of 2015 or letting him test the market after the season. One thing that works in the Mariners favor is the potential of a qualifying offer being extended to Jackson. This winter’s qualifying offer was worth $15.3 million and presumably next year’s will be around the $16 million mark. That’s inching closer and closer to Pence money.

If Jackson does have another poor season, a qualifying offer is very unlikely. But we have seen how similar good, not great players like Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales have been hurt by the qualifying offer.

As it stands, Jackson will likely begin the 2015 season in the leadoff spot. He would probably be a better fit lower in the lineup, but the Mariners really don’t have another option for the top of the lineup. Dustin Ackley and Chris Taylor saw time in the No. 2 spot last season, but don’t profile particularly well there either.

The lack of depth at center is concerning, but the lack of control over Jackson isn’t so much. There will be several free agent and trade options for filling the position if Jackson does decide to go elsewhere as a free agent.

Not to mention the fact there’s plenty of time this winter for a deal to take place that could factor into the club’s long-term outfield plans.

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Tyler Carmont

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