Of all the possible outfielders floated as White Sox solutions over the last several months, Austin Jackson excited me the least.
But he does qualify as a solution, and one that cements the larger theme of Rick Hahn's offseason. With a one-year, $5 million contract, Jackson joins the White Sox reboot of "The Expendables" with Alex Avila, Dioner Navarro, Brett Lawrie, Mat Latos and Jimmy Rollins, which is stapled onto that preposterously affordable and effective core.
Picture Mark Buehrle's truck towing a beat-up Airstream. That's the roster. The hope is that the trailer is more broken-in than broken-down, but we have no way of knowing until it logs some road-test miles.
The reason Jackson didn't enthrall me is that he requires more caution in his deployment. His recent history is much more ragged than those of the star outfielders and second-tier guys who signed with other teams, and the Sox struggle to reverse slides with position players.
That said, up until Sunday, the Sox had to start Avisail Garcia due to a lack of depth. Now, they don't need Garcia to figure out an offensive approach. Instead, Robin Ventura can lean more on a player who at least has a couple of legit MLB skills, even if he also has to be mindful of limitations.
Things Austin Jackson can do
*Play center field: The White Sox plan on taking full advantage, as Hahn said that "most of, if not all of, Austin’s time will come in center." He's not a Gold Glove-caliber defender like he was early in his Detroit days, but he's been more stable than Adam Eaton, whose attempt to bounce back from an ugly season in center field has been delayed by a prolonged recovery from shoulder surgery.
Eaton has only seen time at DH in the first few games of the spring, but the Sox are trying to alleviate concerns with their public comments. Now, the timing of this signing may only increase worrying about Eaton's abilities to play defense, but should there be legit reason to fret, the situation is better than it was, as Jackson is an MLB-grade defender, and Eaton's bat can play anywhere.
*Hit left-handed pitching: While Jackson maintained pretty even splits over the first several seasons, his game has fallen into a typical platoon-righty profile the last two years.
- vs. LHP: .290/.345/.408
- vs. RHP: .248/.293/.344
That line against left-handed pitching has its uses, and the Sox could use more players who are above-average at specific things.
*Provide an ego boost: The White Sox had company in their pursuit of Jackson, including the Angels and Indians.
Source: Jackson chose #WhiteSox partly out of desire to play CF rather than LF. #Angels offered more money, but obviously not CF.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) March 6, 2016
Indians promised Austin Jackson a lot of playing time if he came to Cleveland, but felt Jackson wanted to play in Chicago.— paul hoynes (@hoynsie) March 7, 2016
White Sox signed Jackson for 1 year/$5 million. Tribe felt it would have taken more to get him to Cle and budget is tight right now.— paul hoynes (@hoynsie) March 7, 2016
And Cleveland isn't the only Central team licking wounds. Throw in early-spring injuries to Jarrod Dyson and Cameron Maybin, and it's a good time for the Sox to reinforce their up-the-middle defense.
Things Austin Jackson cannot do
*Hit right-handed pitching: The flip side to the splits, of course. Hahn may say that Jackson might get most, if not all, his playing time in center field, but hopefully that doesn't mean he'll play most, if not all, the games, should his production fail to warrant it..
*Maintain a healthy strikeout-to-walk ratio: Nobody is a fan of Garcia's plate discipline, and yet he posted better walk and strikeout rates than Jackson last year.
- Jackson: 5.5% BB, 23.9% K
- Garcia: 6.0% BB, 23.5% K
Jackson did get back to making harder contact in 2015 after an ugly 2014, but his ground-ball rate spiked (51 percent), his heat maps show more grounders to the left side, and more flies to center and right, and his flyball distance dropped for a third straight year.
*Get a complete benefit of the doubt: Jackson gave the Tigers 4½ valuable seasons, but he hasn't been the same since Detroit traded him to Seattle at the deadline in 2014. The Mariners have their own version of awful player-acquisition luck, and the Sox have a friendlier home park, so maybe this will be Jackson's chance at resuscitation. He's a lifetime .293/.364/.457 hitter at U.S. Cellular Field, but that's trivia, while the other numbers are worrisome factors that require the Sox to watch out for a potential collapse.
*Hurt the Sox' draft: Lest I end on a downer for a move that is ultimately positive, the Sox did find a way to upgrade their outfield depth and defense while maintaining their 2016 draft budget. So even if Jackson doesn't pan out, this decision-making process allows June to be exciting in at least one way. If Jackson can hold the line, though -- he doesn't even need to get better -- he should be able to help the Sox fight into midsummer, too.