Cleveland Indians: Could Austin Jackson Make an Impact This Year?

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May 22, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago White Sox center fielder Austin Jackson (10) hits a single against the Kansas City Royals during the fifth inning at U.S. Cellular Field. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports
May 22, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago White Sox center fielder Austin Jackson (10) hits a single against the Kansas City Royals during the fifth inning at U.S. Cellular Field. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports /
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The Cleveland Indians signed outfielder Austin Jackson to a minor league deal. Could he see some time up with the Indians in 2017?

On Wednesday, the Cleveland Indians signed former Detroit Tigers outfielder Austin Jackson to a minor league deal. Jackson was drafted by the New York Yankees in the 8th round of the 2005 amateur draft. He made his major league debut in 2010 at the age of 23.

Jackson had a very successful stint with the Tigers. He was their starting center fielder from 2010 to 2014, where he was eventually traded to help Detroit acquire David Price from the Tampa Bay Rays. Jackson slashed .277/.342/.413 with a 105 OPS+ with Detroit. He averaged 16 stolen bases per season during his stint with Detroit as well.

He was traded to Seattle along with left-handed starting pitcher Drew Smyly in a three-team blockbuster trade involving Detroit, Seattle, and Tampa Bay at the non-waiver trade deadline of the 2014 season. Jackson’s production diminished significantly in Seattle. He was traded again to the Chicago Cubs at the waiver deadline of the 2015 season.

The Cubs did not re-sign Jackson, and Jackson signed a one-year deal with the Chicago White Sox for the 2016 season. He missed most of the 2016 season due to a knee injury. He only played 54 games and would eventually have surgery to repair a meniscus tear in his left knee.

Austin Jackson will enter the 2017 season with a lot to prove. Two seasons have passed since he was a productive player, and he will need to prove that his knee is fully healthy. This will be Jackson’s age 30 season. Many players around this age are producing their best statistical seasons. He will come into spring training looking to claim a spot in the Cleveland Indians outfield. Several things will have to go his way for this to happen.

If Jackson comes into spring training fully healthy, there are two primary ways he could see time at the big league level. The first would be if an outfielder suffered a major injury. The outfield as it stands heading into 2017 will consist of Michael Brantley, Tyler Naquin, Lonnie Chisenhall, Brandon Guyer, and Abraham Almonte. An injury to any one of these five players would open up outfield at-bats. Almonte would probably get the first crack at regular at bats if a starting outfielder got injured, but Jackson could at least see time as a reserve in this scenario.

Another path to the field for Jackson would be if Tyler Naquin is not able to produce. Naquin regressed significantly in the second half of the 2016 season. If he is not able to bounce back, he could be optioned to AAA Columbus. Austin Jackson could conceivably step into the center field spot if that were to happen. Again, Almonte will probably be given that opportunity first, but Jackson could seize that role if he outperforms Almonte.

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This is a good signing by the Indians. With Jackson signing a minor league deal, the risk is obviously minimal. If Jackson would be able to step in and provide depth, then it’s already a good signing. If Jackson gets regular at-bats at any point and plays like he did in Detroit, then it becomes a great signing by the Tribe front office. Minor league deals are often nothing to get excited about, but Indians fans should be happy about this signing given Brantley’s injury and Naquin’s regression last year.

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