Relief Is a Center Fielder Named Austin Jackson

Austin

It’s been a rather remarkable season by Seattle standards, but yesterday morning felt like a throwback to years past.

Here’s how I’d sum up my past half-decade rooting for the Mariners. Each April, the baseball fan and Seattleite inside me gets all giddy about what this season could be for the M’s. Then, usually by early-June, everyone but Felix has shit the bed, management tries solving the problem with Endy Chavez, and I’m left sending angry texts to friends about another year wasted. Come August, I’m checked out, watching games from my den of indifference. It’s a cruel cycle, the reason I term the M’s “the team [I’ve] always lamented loving.

The 2014 trade deadline compressed this months-long process into a few short hours. I woke up, like any fan does on July 31, imagining all the new players the day might bring. At about noon came the bitterness; did the front office really think Chris fucking Denorfia was going to secure the first playoff spot we’ve had a chance at in years? And then, with 1:00 PDT mere minutes away, the resignation — yep, they did. Slanty face.

But right as I was prepping myself for an afternoon of sighing and shoulder shrugging and #smh’ing, the blessed news broke. David Price was being moved as part of a three-team trade. The Tigers and Mariners were involved. Seattle would receive center fielder Austin Jackson from Detroit.

Just like that, the deadline became a different type of microcosm: another day that exceeded expectations, in a season that’s done nothing but.

The news shocked me, in part, merely because it came so late; it was, like, six minutes before the deadline when I first saw the tweets. Also because Jackson’s was reportedly part of the deal, and by my count, he’d been mentioned in exactly zero trade rumors to that point. But in all that craziness, the thing that surprised me most was that Jack Zduriencik had pulled off a pretty damn good trade.

Despite having a down year in 2014, Jackson’s a legitimate asset. He’s been an above-average hitter for his career, can field the outfield’s toughest position competently (though the defense has been trending downwards recently), and has been among the MLB’s most valuable baserunners since his career began. Just two years ago, he was the league’s fourth-best CF by WAR, and a top-20 position player overall by the same metric. Again, he hasn’t been producing at quite that level since, but those are the numbers of an all-star.

Let’s break down Jackson’s current season. ZiPS has him slated to collect 2.2 WAR by year’s end, which would be his worst campaign to date. What gives? Well, the hitting’s been down a bit. He posted a 134wRC+ during that all-star season in 2012, and has run a 106  for his career, but that number has dropped a bit to 101 this year. I think most of that’s explained by his power numbers, as his BB%, K%, and OBP are right around his career averages. Meanwhile, he’s only projected to hit eight home runs this season, down from 12 last year and 16 the year before. Looking closer at those totals, though, is actually kind of encouraging. In 2014, Jackson’s been hitting more fly balls than ever before, but for some reason, those balls are leaving the park at half the rate they have over his five years in the league. It’d be convenient to mark that up to diminishing strength, but keep in mind Jackson’s only 27. That’s the age when you expect players to fill out their bodies and start peaking offensively. So rather than see Jackson’s recent power outage as physical decline, I think it’s safe to say a lot of it’s due to poor luck — I’m guessing he’s hit a lot of warning track flies this season. And that means we can reasonably expect an offensive rebound both down the stretch and in 2015.

One thing that’s probably not coming back is the defensive prowess Jackson showed when he first emerged in the bigs. The center field expanse is best covered with speed, and players only get slower as they age. Evidence of this, his UZR and DRS have been in decline since 2011. (The declining speed also means Jackson’s been legging out fewer infield hits, which is perhaps another contributor to the fall in offensive output.)

Another quick note on Jackson’s wheels. Though he’s almost certainly getting slower, he’s continued to add value on the basepaths, and is on pace to steal the most bags he has since 2011. His legs don’t have the spring they once did, but he’s become smarter about utilizing them, I’m guessing.

Ultimately, what the M’s got in Jackson is an everyday CF, and a good one at that. He’s not going to return to his elite 2012 form, but, overall, he’s also probably due to improve on this year’s production. Oliver projects him as a +3.1-win player in 2015, and that feels just about right, hitting, defense, baserunning, and age considered.

So, great, Seattle acquired a talented player. Nice! That in itself would be reason for excitement, but, of course, transactions aren’t quite so simple. There are a lot of things to look at when evaluating a trade, like how much was given up to get the new talent, how long the team will control the acquired player(s), whether or not the trade fills an area of need on the roster, where the team finds itself in the standings, and so on. Fortunately for the M’s, on Thursday, all these considerations added up to a move that fans could look at approvingly.

To secure Jackson, Seattle sent Nick Franklin Tampa Bay’s way. After doing absolutely nothing in a short stint with the big league club this season, and then subsequently struggling in Tacoma too, Franklin’s trade value had dropped from where it was in late 2013. Still, he was a consensus top-100 prospect entering last season, and was a top-50 guy prior to that. And a young, power-hitting middle infielder is a very desirable piece for any team. The M’s certainly didn’t school the competition on this deal. But considering Jackson’s contract and where Seattle is right now, as well as all the above talk about how good of a CF he is, paying the price of Franklin wasn’t all the difficult to stomach.

Probably most importantly, Jackson will be controlled through the 2015 season. He’s not merely a rental, and should the M’s fail to grab the second Wild Card spot this year, Jackson will still be here to help come next April. Incoming talent is a lot more valuable when it can contribute to two separate shots at the postseason.

Swapping Franklin for Jackson was also the exact magnitude of move I think most fans were hoping to see. Mike and I discussed this in more length during yesterday’s Email Exchange, but Seattle found itself in a bit of a predicament at this year’s deadline. The team’s facing its first realistic shot at the playoffs in forever, which I’m sure had the front office’s “buy now” senses tingling. At the same time, though, the most the M’s can hope for is a one-game playoff against the A’s or Angels, with the chance to then advance to the ALDS, and a mere chance at a chance opportunity isn’t worth selling the farm. Which Seattle didn’t do! Franklin’s a young stud, but he’s not untouchable, and on top of that, he didn’t have a future with this team after Cano came along. In acquiring Jackson, Z found a nice middle ground between going for it in 2014 and saving the in-house prospects for future postseason runs with better odds.

Lastly, it was oh so cool that the team got all of the above in a CF. The M’s outfield has been atrocious this year, ranking 28th in the league in WAR. It’d been especially bad recently, with Michael Saunders’s injury meaning frequent appearances by the Endy Chavez-James Jones circus. The mere addition of Jackson would help most teams. But for Seattle, where getting him means switching a sub-win player with a one-win player from here on out, he helps especially.

Getting a year and change of a good player, who plays a position the team desperately needed to improve, during a time when the organization finally had an chance to give its fans October ball, is a great move. Doing so at the price of Nick Franklin is, to me, a really great one. I’m not ready to give Z my full endorsement, and you can bet I still have my #FireJackZ tweets at the ready, but good on him for his dealings yesterday. What a relief it was to watch Thursday afternoon’s game with that trade fresh on the mind. For once, hope wasn’t followed by anger and apathy, but simply more hope. The cycle was broken, at least for a day.

And hey, who knows. If that cycle can be broken, who’s to say the postseason drought can’t?

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