In the event you missed it earlier this week, veteran center fielder Austin Jackson is now a member of the Chicago White Sox. And while no one is suggesting the 29-year-old was one of the big “gets” of the offseason, the truth is that — for a paltry $5 million (chicken feed by today’s increasingly insane standards) — one of the Cleveland Indians’ division rivals just added a very competent everyday piece that simultaneously deprived the Tribe of the same. With many media outlets projecting A-Jax and Cleveland as a perfect match all winter, this result is a tad disappointing. With a little added context, though, it becomes borderline unacceptable.
Maybe it’s a bit of a paradox, but the inarguable competence of the Cleveland Indians front office — the way they’ve built a lethal, low-priced rotation and a stable core — is actually what makes events like the Jackson non-signing all the more frustrating. Even for the most reasonable, longstanding Antonetti apologists (as I generally consider myself to be), there does reach a point where you wonder if a “brilliantly efficient use of available funds” is overlapping into “helpless inactivity.” The latter certainly reflects more on club ownership than leadership, but Indians fans made up their minds on the Dolans a long time ago. What we’ve longed to see is some clear indication that — when the pieces are aligned for a legitimate postseason run, as they appear to be now in the Kluber/Carrasco/Salazar/Bauer era — that the long promised “investment” of funds toward that ultimate goal would come along with it. Sure, none of us rational types ever believed that the rumored names of Cespedes and Upton were legit. But for a supposed playoff team in desperate need of a reliable outfielder, the notion that Dexter Fowler and Austin Jackson can’t be had because “the budget is too tight” — as Cleveland.com’s Paul Hoynes explained it — is a mighty hard pill to swallow. Even amidst the enthusiasm of spring training, we’re left wondering, yet again, if purse strings will create that fine line between competing and contending.
In fairness, let’s first consider the very real possibility that Cleveland simply didn’t see Jackson as a clear upgrade over the current ensemble of quad-A outfielders on the roster.
Name recognition is certainly a factor here. We saw Jackson for four years in Detroit, including a runner-up Rookie of the Year campaign in 2010 and a superb breakout season in 2012, when he slashed .300/.377/.479 and finished 10th in the league with a 5.0 WAR. For those who’ve been paying attention, however, that year looks more like an anomaly. Jackson’s numbers have dipped dramatically in the three seasons since, and his once excellent defensive ranks have moved more toward the middle of the pack among center fielders based on last year’s efforts with the Mariners and Cubs (the Sox will be his fourth team in two years). Jackson’s .696 OPS in 2015 was an improvement above an ugly .655 in 2014, but his strikeout issues continue, with one K for every 3.9 at-bats. On the bases, he’s a threat, but with 17 steals in 27 tries in 2015, he’s hardly Kenny Lofton out there either.
Once elevated by his status as a top Yankee prospect and a budding star with Detroit, Jackson is now, realistically, an average to slightly below average MLB center fielder. And with Michael Brantley on the mend, the Tribe brass may have assessed the situation and determined that the odds were just as good that one of the current men battling for outfield time — such as fellow 29-year-olds Joey Butler and Collin Cowgill or fellow ex-Tiger Rajai Davis — would essentially offer equal upside to the streaky Jackson. Tyler Naquin is waiting in the wings, as well, and Brad Zimmer and Clint Frazier are next in line. “Signing Jackson would just be spending money for the sake of spending money,” Chernoff and Co. could thus say.
When your kitchen sink is broken, you could certainly take to washing dishes in the bathtub, or outside with the water hose. With other sources of water available, paying for a plumber would just be throwing money around willy-nilly. But then again, if a new faucet is on sale and would solve your problem with minimal financial strain, you might as well not be the guy washing your dishes out in the yard.
Austin Jackson made sense for the Indians for four pretty basic reasons.
1. Michael Brantley Injury Concerns
Yes, we all love the idea of our best hitter magically rounding back into form by April 4, but as we’ve seen with many other players coming off major surgery, even a “healthy” Brantley might not look like a healthy Brantley for quite some time. And he’s going to need days off. Cleveland, in turn, needs depth, and while they’ve piled up some spring invitees and signed Davis to replace Ryan Raburn as a veteran right-handed stick, Jackson would have provided a huge stabilizing piece to that shaky situation developing in the grass. Even in a best-case scenario, where Lonnie Chisenhall becomes a reliable rightfielder, Brantley returns in April, and someone like Jose Ramirez becomes a serviceable backup centerfielder (I don’t see it), the club is simply unable to afford any other injuries. With Jackson, you have a proven starter in center, and everyone else on your depth chart slides down into a more appropriate position (Joey Butler hasn’t played center field in his career, if you were wondering).
2. Abraham Almonte Isn’t Walking Through That Door
Almonte was actually a surprisingly solid contributor after he was acquired last summer, and I was interested to see what he might do when presented with a real opportunity to grab the reins in 2016. Oh well. In late February, Almonte was suspended for 80 games for a negative drug test. Many thought this would be the news that would finally compel Cleveland to make its inevitable Austin Jackson push. But instead, they may have felt themselves leaning toward desperation and overreacted by hiding their phones in the freezer.
3. The Cavalry Isn’t Coming… Yet
It was just a week ago that Terry Francona stated, paraphrased by Jordan Bastian, that “anyone thinking prospects Zimmer or Frazier can help the MLB team now isn’t thinking through the process realistically.” It’s probably not actually that unfair for fans to look at what Francisco Lindor did last year (and what he MIGHT have done if called up before June) and ask why Zimmer or Frazier couldn’t be factors in 2016. But according to the team’s own manager, that isn’t a realistic expectation from the club itself. Thus, all the more reason a one-year deal for Jackson would have made almost too much sense—the proverbial bridge to the next great Indians center fielder.
4. The Market
Austin Jackson made close to $8 million last season in Seattle. His value has dropped nearly in half with his new contract, even though he technically had a better season in 2015 than 2014. It’s just the way the market panned out, as long waits for various dominos to fall in December and January left some mid-level free agents picking up the loose change leftover. A-Jax stated that he wanted to remain a center fielder and would take less money to do so.
Paul Hoynes indicated that Chernoff and Co. felt Jackson preferred Chicago to Cleveland, and that they would have needed to pay a bit more than the $5 million the Sox offered to pry him away. Hmmm. $6 million for an average, 29-year-old centerfielder, eh? Sounds steep, until you consider that the Cubs just handed Dexter Fowler — ironically Austin Jackson’s closest career comp player — over twice that much, $13 million, for this season. Chris Young, a 32-year-old platoon man, got $6.5 million from the Red Sox. Denard Span signed for $10.5 mill per season from San Francisco. Gerardo Parra will make over $9 million this year as part of a new three-year deal with Colorado. Are any of those guys dramatically superior to Austin Jackson? If anything, Cleveland’s patience had rewarded them with a no-brainer opportunity to sign a solid everyday player at a cost almost half the going rate.
And if your final defense is, “they simply can’t fit another $6-7 million into the budget,” I direct you first to Michael Bode’s statistical destruction of that argument, then ask the only reasonable follow-up: can a World Series winner send out the sort of outfield we’re looking at right now? If the answer is, “a team with Kluber, Carrasco, and Salazar just might,” then I guess we’ll find out together.