Cubs Offseason Target: Austin Jackson

The calendar has turned over into 2018, and the Chicago Cubs have made solid moves to bolster their starting rotation and bullpen. However, even after those additions, the front office still has not addressed the smaller, less pressing gaps on the bench. One of those gaps is the role of extra outfielder, a job occupied successfully by Jon Jay in 2017 and a couple guys named Chris in seasons before him (Coghlan and Denorfia). With Jay a free agent, a reunion for 2018 is certainly possible. But presuming the Chief Justice takes his talents elsewhere, another old friend may be a great fit.

After an early career breakout, Austin Jackson looked like a future star in the making in Detroit. A center fielder with speed, good defense, on-base ability and a little bit of pop. But Jackson’s rise stalled out five years into his career in 2014, around the time he was traded from Detroit to the Seattle Mariners. Following Seattle, Jackson has bounced around to three different teams, including a cameo appearance on the playoff-bound 2015 Cubs after a last-minute waiver deadline acquisition.

But after another weak year with the White Sox in 2016, Jackson quietly resurged in 2017 after signing a minor league deal with the Cleveland Indians. Now, he figures to be one of the better part-time outfielders on the market.

Position: Outfielder, primarily Center Field

2017 Stats:

Austin Jackson (2017)
Plate Appearances AVG OBP SLG HR BB% K% wRC+ WARP
318 .318 .387 .482 7 10.4% 22.6% 131 1.9

How He Fits:

Barring a trade, the Cubs’ 2018 outfield depth figures to look something like this: Jason Heyward, Albert Almora, Ian Happ, Kyle Schwarber, Ben Zobrist, and One Other Guy. Though that outfield corps appears to be pretty lock-solid without a final member, one could have made the same argument before the 2017 season, a year that wound up seeing extreme under-the-radar signing Jon Jay get 433 plate appearances. Check out how Jay fared last season, overall.

Jon Jay (2017)
Plate Appearances AVG OBP SLG HR BB% K% wRC+
Overall 433 .296 .374 .375 2 8.5% 18.5% 101
vs. LHP 101 .318 .410 .341 0 11.9% 16.8% 108
vs. RHP 332 .289 .364 .384 2 7.5% 19% 98

As we can see, according to wRC+, Jay, who was renowned for doing an excellent job in part-time duty, was still just barely above average overall and slightly better than that against left handed pitching.

So keeping in mind that Jay was just a tad above average in 2017, let’s consider Austin Jackson, who had the following splits last season – nearly all of which were better than Jay’s:

Austin Jackson (2017)
Plate Appearances AVG OBP SLG HR BB% K% wRC+
vs. LHP 141 .352 .440 .574 4 13.5% 17.7% 171
vs. RHP 177 .291 .345 .411 3 7.9% 22% 100

You know how Albert Almora gets a ton of praise for dominating against left handed pitching? Even his 2017 line (.342/.411/.486, 137 wRC+) isn’t in the ballpark with Jackson’s outstanding work. A lineup that could boast both Almora and Jackson? Good luck getting to sleep, opposing lefty starters.

With that said, Jackson’s 2017 line was much better than his career totals against lefties (for his career, a far more down-to-Earth .267/.343/.404, 106 wRC+). Additionally, though his walk rate and on-base numbers grade out as better than Jon Jay, they were much higher than his career averages (8.1% walk rate, .336 OBP). On top of that, Jackson’s hard hit rate of 31.8% (exactly league average) was only slightly higher than his career average of 30%, but his BABIP of .385 was quite a bit higher than his career average of .352, indicating Jackson may have simply been experiencing some better luck than usual in 2017. Alternatively, though, perhaps Jackson was being better utilized in situations tailored to him, leading to a better output.

Even after Jackson’s excellent 2017, folks don’t quite seem to be buying the comeback. MLB Trade Rumors did not even rank Jackson as one of the top 50 free agents of the winter (in fact, he didn’t even make the “honorable mentions” section). Jon Jay, on the other hand, was ranked 39th. Analyst Jon Heyman predicted that Jackson would receive a $12 million/2 year deal. If Jackson repeats his 2017 output for the next two seasons, that price sounds like a bargain. If he doesn’t, though, $6 million per year feels high for such a gamble. It all depends on if the Cubs believe in Jackson’s reemergence.

In the event they do, bringing back the former Cub on a two-year deal could give the team a little more flexibility to move on from Ian Happ or Albert Almora and deal one of them away for pitching. Adding a near starting-caliber player like Jackson, coupled with his excellent work against lefties, could make for a good left field platoon with Kyle Schwarber, and leave center open for either Happ or Almora, whomever is not traded.

Why It Won’t Work:

As noted earlier, Jackson’s 2017 may have been more of a fluke than a true reemergence. Fairly precarious peripheral numbers such as an exceedingly high BABIP and a higher than preferable strikeout rate could give reason for pause. When coupled with a salary that may be a little high for the front office’s liking, even as a bench bat, Jackson may begin to make less sense. But, a more concerning aspect of Jackson’s game comes in a realm that he typically has been pretty solid in throughout his career: defense.

Jackson graded out as solidly below average in the outfield in 2017 according to uZR, where he posted a -4.4 overall (-3.0 in center, and -.7 in both left and right field), a total lower than that posted by Jon Jay, a man not known for his glove-work. Yet, since uZR has a tendency to fluctuate from year to year, it’s worth considering that Jackson rated out to a 7.5 uZR in center in 2015, before dropping to -4.6 in 2016. 2017 was also the first time in his career that Jackson saw increased time in the corner outfield spots.

As for Baseball Prospectus’ proprietary stats, Jackson graded out as a -1.6 FRAA defender in 2017, a disappointing result (especially when coupled with a -1.2 FRAA in 2016), but not the worst of Jackson’s career, which came in 2013, when he posted a terrible -8.4 total.

Although his aforementioned defensive reputation is solid, the legend of Jackson’s great defense is might not be proportional to his skill. Jackson’s defensive metrics have fluctuated over the course of his career, as he has had great defensive seasons, such as his 2011 (7.8 uZR, 6.2 FRAA) and 2015 seasons (7.2 uZR, 5.1 FRAA), and then some quite poor years like 2013 (-3.8 uZR, -8.4 FRAA), 2014 (-8.6 uZR, -5.8 FRAA) or 2017. With this level of defensive volatility, especially for a guy on the other side of 30 like Jackson, it might be that his most dependent quality will be his bat.

And that takes us back to whether the Cubs believe in his offensive 2017. If so, adding him on a cheap contract and acknowledging that he may bring less defensive value than Jon Jay did last season, is a fair move. But, if the Cubs don’t trust the offense and are looking for a guy who can provide more help with his glove, perhaps they set their sights on other bench additions.

Alternatives: Obviously, Jon Jay could always re-enter the Cubs’ fold in 2018 and beyond, as he provided solid value last season and appeared to be a very well liked member of the club. If the Cubs don’t reunite with either Jay or Jackson, they could also be in touch with veteran Curtis Granderson, defensive specialist and speedster Jarrod Dyson, or World Series antagonist Rajai Davis.

Lead photo courtesy Matt Marton—USA Today Sports

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