Last fall, Prince Fielder may have been the only player on the Detroit Tigers‘ roster who was receiving more criticism than Austin Jackson. Fans were already flustered by Jackson’s up-and-down 2013 season, and his performance in the playoffs just added fuel to the fire. In the first eight games of the Tigers’ postseason, Jackson went 3-for-33 and struck out 18 times. It becomes rather difficult for a team to score runs when their leadoff man is not getting on base. It was not until Jackson was moved down to the eight spot when he finally woke up and went 6-for-9 in the final three games of the ALCS.
The Tigers’ organization took notice of Jackson’s struggles and began pondering ways to upgrade in center field. It was reported earlier this offseason that the Tigers would be listening to offers on Jackson, and it was rumored that the team was considering swapping Jackson for Brett Gardner or perhaps even making him the centerpiece of a package that would have brought Matt Kemp to Detroit. These rumors have quickly fallen by the wayside, which should elate Tigers fans as Jackson is still the best man to patrol center field in 2014 in spite of last season’s offensive woes.
Jackson has never received enough credit for his defensive prowess. Comerica Park has a very large center field, and although playing center in Comerica may not be quite as tricky as playing left field in Fenway or playing center in Minute Maid Park it is still rather challenging. The Tigers are much betting off sticking with a player who has been there over the past four seasons rather than bringing in someone new who will have to learn the nuances of playing there.
Jackson has a lifetime .992 fielding percentage in 4,850 career innings in center field. He has never committed more than six errors in a single season and has committed three or fewer in every season since 2011. He has also had at least five assists in each of past four seasons.
Moreover, he has the innate ability to get a great jump on the ball even though he does not possess blazing speed. The catch he made in the ninth inning of Armando Galarraga‘s near perfect game against the Cleveland Indians on the night on June 2, 2010, will easily be remembered as one of the greatest catches of the decade if not the century.
It should also be noted that Jackson is not that far removed from a terrific 2012 campaign in which he hit .300/.377/.479 with 16 home runs, 29 doubles, 10 triples and 66 RBI. If he can once again put up a season like that in 2014 he will most certainly silence his critics.
Due to the fact that Jackson already has four seasons under his belt, he will be eligible for free agency after the 2015 season so the Tigers are going to have to make a decision about his future rather soon. The Tigers have a tremendous left-handed hitting prospect with speed in Daniel Fields who may in fact be the center fielder of the future, but as of right now, Jackson is far and away the best candidate to man center field for the Tigers in 2014.
However, although the Tigers were wise to stick with Jackson in center, he should absolutely not bat leadoff next season in light of the team’s recent additions of Ian Kinsler and Rajai Davis. Now is the perfect time for the Tigers to finally stop trying to turn him into Rickey Henderson and simply allow him to be Mike Cameron.