March 6th, 2016. The day the Chicago White Sox saw their offseason outfield saga come to an anticlimactic end. I remember scrolling through my Twitter feed with a tinge of disappointment, as I exhaled with images of Yoenis Cespedes and Alex Gordon flashing through my mind.
It’s amazing how things can feel with context. In isolation, inking Austin Jackson to a one-year, $5 million pact was a steal from a touch above the bargain-bin. On the heels of one of the most excruciating free agent periods of my lifetime, it felt like the consolation prize I didn’t want.
The letdown fogged my judgement and skewed my view on the 28 year-old outfielder. I saw a sluggish bat, one that was coming off a below average .696 OPS season and my brain zeroed in on the .229/.267/.260 line he had produced over 54 games with Seattle just a season prior.
Part of it was embedded in my disappointment that we weren’t going to see Rick Hahn pull off some trademarked three-way trade to land Yasiel Puig or Joc Pederson. Expectations had tumbled from Alex Gordon to the scrap heap and the life of a low-budget team in a big-budget city would be further realized.
Below this cloud of inherent frustration with the team’s inability to convert on presumably a myriad of other top targets, was a truly competent ballplayer. One I didn’t give enough credit for.
Part of my newfound optimism with Austin Jackson may be fueled by recency bias; the man did just miss a grand slam by a mere inch for Hawk’s sake, but sometimes you have to rinse off a diamond before it shines.
Jackson was worth 2.3 fWAR in 2015, which puts him in an exclusive category when compared to last year’s White Sox roster.
He’s a player who has always had a nice BABIP, which is good because he whiffs quite a bit. He also swiped seventeen bags last season and 25 doubles, 3 triples, and 9 home runs isn’t the type of production you completely scoff at.
What I missed with Austin Jackson was something pretty crucial; he’s a living, breathing baseball player. As harsh as this sounds, that’s something that has been in short supply on the South Side recently.
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It wasn’t fair to toss Austin Jackson in with the list of marginal upgrades I desperately hoped the White Sox would avoid. The trick to winning is to surround a young, cost-controlled core (which Chicago has) with players who can do a little more than just tread water. Jackson can swim a little bit and boy can he cover centerfield.
It’s not worth diving into the metrics because we all know Jackson is a capable to plus glove in centerfield, but his glove is what opened my eyes.
Per the eye test, albeit in a seven game sample size, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how Jackson’s presence has transformed the club’s defense. Sort of like a fresh coat of paint on the neighborhood eyesore.
I’ve made it no secret that I was content with Adam Eaton in center but I love Eaton in right. Suddenly, the outfield is fairly lockdown. Sure, Eaton’s shoulder surgery means his arm doesn’t profile the best in a corner right now, but his range is close to perfect.
Eaton can cover a wide portion of right and right-center, which allows Austin Jackson to take away some of Melky Cabrera‘s real estate. Now, Cabrera can hang near the line more while Jackson and Eaton vacuum up the gaps.
You can’t underestimate how much an improved defense will pay dividends for this team. Frazier’s glove is a welcome sight at third, Lawrie at least has the range at second, and Abreu’s hands look more than passable now. Add that to a secured outfield, and we should see the team’s greatest strength (the pitching staff) actually play up.
Just imagine a world where Chris Sale‘s ERA is closer to his FIP.
For those dreamers, Austin Jackson’s 5.4 fWAR 2012 season is a fun scenario to imagine. Obviously, his .300/.377/.479 (.856 OPS) looks much more like an outlier than gospel but maybe something’s still beneath the surface.
Jackson was once an untouchable prospect, is now playing in a hitter’s heaven, and at least has some track record of success. Will he post 5.4 fWAR in 2016? Absolutely not. But a return to 30 doubles and double-digit home runs feels like it could be a real possibility.
Add that to a plus glove and you’ve got an asset, maybe even an X-Factor.
I’ve really liked Jackson’s at-bats so far. The OBP won’t be pretty, but he has the ability to be more than deadweight. He scalded four balls on Saturday that in July could have given him a trio of homers rather than wind/cold suppressed flyouts.
I’ve also enjoyed Jackson hitting in the 9th spot, as he’s a nice bridge to Eaton and the top of the order. No longer do I view 7-9 as automatic outs.
X-factor may seem like an embellished label for Jackson, but what makes him a breath of fresh air is that he’s finally an offseason acquisition with a floor. Jackson’s bat may ebb and flow within the margins, but his glove and athleticism mean he’ll provide value no matter what.
The Jackson signing isn’t a move that gained many headlines. He likely still won’t see many headlines, but he’s a patch over the stars and scrubs roster complexion that’s become all too familiar on the South Side. Austin Jackson is placing a big “X” over one of 2015’s blackholes, and for that reason, he’s an X-factor.