Why the Tigers should trade Austin Jackson now

Austin Jackson is in his fifth season with the Detroit Tigers.

Austin Jackson is in his fifth season with the Detroit Tigers.

Are you prepared to become irritated with me? Take some time…get ready…okay, here we go.

The Detroit Tigers need to trade one of their regular players, and they should do it right now.

Austin Jackson is a good ballplayer, but he’s never going to be anything more than what he is right now, and he should be dealt while there are plenty of other teams who don’t realize that.

I know what some of you are going to say. The Tigs are 4-1, the offense is clicking, and Jackson is off to a hot start, batting .350 with three extra base hits in the first week of the season. True, true, and true, but the move would still make sense.

When Jackson came over to the Tigers in December of 2009 in the blockbuster three-team trade that also netted Detroit Max Scherzer (and Phil Coke), he was promptly inserted in center field the following spring. A rookie, he was also plopped into the leadoff spot, and he had an excellent freshman campaign, good enough to finish 2nd in American League Rookie of the Year voting. But since then, Jackson has been up and down, mostly down and inconsistent. Fact is, he’s often been frustrating, especially at crucial moments. But more importantly, it makes a lot of sense to trade Jackson now, and I’ll tell you why.

At the age of 27, Jackson is now in his fifth year, he won’t be a free agent until after the 2015 season. He is eligible for arbitration after this season and currently earns $6 million. That all means that he’s a fairly cheap ballplayer and he still has basically two seasons where he’s under control of the team he’s playing for. But, next spring he’ll be in his “walk year,” staring free agency in the face. The Tigers will either have to pony up and give him a big raise, or watch him leave. The only thing they’d get in return would be a draft pick in compensation. If Detroit dealt Jackson now, there are plenty of teams (especially in the NL) who would take him for two seasons until he’s free agent eligible.

In my opinion, Jackson will never be a more valuable commodity than he is right now. He’s off to a good start, he’s showing that he can hit lower in the lineup, and he’s certainly one of the better defensive center fielders in baseball. He’d fetch some quality in return, say a good defensive shortstop or a reliever, or both. Torii Hunter can move over to his old position in center field and handle it fine until a young outfielder emerges from the Tigers minor league organization or they go out and find a center fielder in the free agent market. Infield defense (shortstop) and the bullpen are more critical to the Tigers right now.

The Tigers should take advantage of the fact that they know Jackson better than anyone else. They are painfully aware of his strengths and weaknesses, and it should be quite obvious that AJax is what he is and will never be anything more. Better to spin him off to another team now, rather than to overpay him as a free agent or lose him for nothing. The ceiling for Jackson has been reached, Dave Dombrowski needs to pull the trigger on a deal and get something in return now, when his veteran team is primed for another postseason run.

And this is where I might get myself in trouble, because I’m making my following assessment based on observation only. I don’t know Austin Jackson personally, and I haven’t talked to his teammates and confirmed my theory, but I have watched him play hundreds of baseball games. I don’t think Jackson is a smart baseball player. And if that’s the case, which I strongly believe it is, I think he’s only going to go as far as raw ability will take him, and he’s reached that plateau inn Detroit.

There are all sorts of players that make it to the big leagues: there are talented players who are very smart and intuitive and make themselves even better than their already great athletic gifts (think Alan Trammell); there are guys who are incredibly physically gifted and who don’t have to work real hard to be good players (think Lou Whitaker); there are remarkable talents who are superstars and also excel at the mental game (i.e. Miguel Cabrera), and there are those who have limited physical skills, but who work hard and do everything they can with what they have (like Tom Brookens and Don Kelly). There are other types too, like the Austin Jackson type. Jackson has some really good athletic ability, he’s fast, he’s quick, he can hit pretty well and he can run. But the cerebral part of the game is a challenge for him. Case in point: for years various Tigers’ hitting coaches had tried to get Jackson to alter his “toe-tap” in the batters’ box, to smooth out his timing and help cut down on his strikeouts. Jackson resisted, then grudgingly worked on it, abandoned it, tweaked this, tweaked that, resisted again, and finally this spring he scrapped the toe-tap. In the meantime, he’s been inconsistent for three years. Want another example? Watch Jackson steal bases. He gets a terrible lead, he gets a poor jump, and as a result he has horrid stats over the last two seasons, swiping 20 bases while being thrown out 13 times. This after getting tons of basestealing instruction and despite being a fast runner. Most critically, however, has been Jackson’s inability to deal with his position in the batting order. As a leadoff man, Jackson was overmatched, both physically and mentally. He just doesn’t know the strike zone and he regularly swings at pitches well out of the zone. He consistently overthinks things, worrying about “being a leadoff man” instead of becoming a more efficient big league hitter. One can find dozens of interviews with Jackson over the last four years in which he expressed his belief that as a leadoff man he should be seeing lots of pitches and “setting the table.” It’s hogwash of course. Jackson should just stop thinking about the wrong things and start focusing on what’s important – like swinging at better pitches. Jackson’s mental lapses on the basepaths and in the batters’ box, and his fuzzy mental approach to offense are a barrier to his success. The Tigers know that, and they should deal him away to a team that sees Jackson’s positives.

In addition, Jackson is, like most players his age, gaining power at the plate. For his career, Jackson has hit twice as many homers on the road as he has at Comerica Park. Like the player he was dealt for (Curtis Granderson), Jackson could hit many more homers for another team. He could probably go somewhere else (San Francisco, the Cubs?) and hit 25-30 homers. That sort of potential could net the Tigers a shortstop and bullpen depth. Jackson’s best attributes are more valuable elsewhere on a team where his ballpark would favor him and the lineup could be built more around his strengths.

As fine as Jackson has been in center field (and admittedly he’s been a key factor in the team’s success over the last three years) he’s been a dud when it’s counted. In the 2011 ALCS against the Rangers, Jackson struck out 11 times and made a baserunning gaffe that snuffed out a Tigers rally. In the 2013 postseason he struck out an incredible 18 times in 11 games. In all, Jackson has been a phantom in the postseason. But those are the gritty details of his infuriating play in key moments, which I think supports my point that AJax is not a smart player. The big picture is that there are several good reasons to deal Jackson NOW, while he’s valuable, while he’s young, and when Detroit could fill a hole or two and get back to the World Series.



About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a web producer. He contributed to Sock it to ‘Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.