The Mariners have two looming free agents of note in the upcoming offseason. One is Hisashi Iwakuma, whom I wrote about last week and Jake wrote about earlier today. The other is Austin Jackson. Jackson's time in Seattle has been uneven. In the macabre contest to locate "The Thing" that left the 2014 Mariners one game out of the playoff Jackson' woeful 52 wRC+ with the team is certainly in the forefront of the discussion.
Jackson has rebounded somewhat this year, although his contributions to the 2015 season have been uneven. The offense is still miles away from where it was even with Detroit the first half of last year. In fact Jackson is on pace to put up his lowest wRC+ of any full season in the major leagues. Of course as a full time centerfielder Jackson is able to contribute to his team in many ways other than with the bat. Given the giant qualifier that single season defensive metrics are still stuck in an era where approximations and human error run rampant, Jackson has been among the better defenders at the position this year. Take a look at these rankings:
So, again, this is very inexact. But that's a list of generally accepted very good defensive outfielders. We can quibble over exactitude but I'm comfortable saying Jackson has been an above average defensive centerfielder in 2015. This is backed by the eye test, which has seen plenty of plays like this:
Now to throw a bit of a wrench into this classic profile of a light-hitting, fast ranging Jackson has been atrocious on the basepaths this year. This is due to 2 primary factors:
1) Austin Jackson gets thrown out trying to steal 41% of the time, nearly double the maximum ideal amount.
2) Austin Jackson keeps trying to steal for some reason.
Jackson is now at 13 SB in 22 attempts and I honestly can't tell you why he keeps trying. If it's him running on his own he needs to lose that privilege. If it's getting called from the dugout, well, we'll get to those guys in a different article.
It's not just stolen bases where Jackson's baserunning has proved subpar. Just yesterday we saw an example of his speed in the field simply not translating to the basepaths. Overall Jackson' BsR per Fangraphs is the 2nd worst of any centerfielder in baseball this year. Again, this fits the eye test.
So, to sum up: Austin Jackson is a 28 year old above average defender at a premium position with a below average bat trending in the wrong direction. Additionally he runs the bases like lumbering DH but doesn't know it. That player is not a premium acquisition for any team. Still, he's a player with four 2+ and two 4+ fWAR seasons this decade and he's still a year from 30. Somebody will want him. Maybe even the Mariners. That brings us, ever so slowly, to the point.
The Mariners have two young, cost controlled players they have been experimenting with in center field this season. Brad Miller and Ketel Marte are both thought to have the athleticism if not the pedigree for the position. We can, have and will continue to make jokes about the Mariners' inability to simply draft and develop a quality major league outfielder but those jokes don't preclude the idea that seeing if a couple of toolsy, fringe shortstop guys can handle themselves out there.
Is this the kind of thing that should be figured out in Spring Training and/or the minor leagues? Oh yeah, you bet. Nothing about this process is ideal. Nothing about this season is ideal. But with Jackson's looming free agency, the minor league season winding down and the Mariners' season listing hopelessly there's every reason for the team to invest the rest of the season in one or both Miller and Marte in centerfield. It's learning on the job at the highest level, which is a huge challenge. But this is what happens when you stock your roster and minor leagues with 6'5" bat first/only sluggers.
This recommendation leaves Austin Jackson without a place to be, other than the dugout. With 20 days before the end of the waiver-period trade deadline there is every reason for the team to attempt to work out a trade for their current centerfielder. There is almost no chance Jackson will get anything back in trade greater than salary relief of the ~2 million still owed to him this year and/or a live human in a baseball uniform.
But acquisition is an ancillary benefit of this deal. The rest of 2015 is now about 2016, a year when the Mariners could very much still find themselves contending. The 2016 Mariners cannot afford to go into the season with a huge shrug emoticon in center field, any more than this year's team could afford punting outfield defense and catcher offense. It's time to see if one of the kids have it, because shopping season is coming. Regardless of who is running this franchise next year the decision on outfield roster construction is helped immensely with a a combination of Ketel Marte and Brad Miller getting 2 months of regular playing time.
For the 2015 Mariners Austin Jackson remains the best option. But the future demands sacrifices today. It's time to go, Austin.