The Obviousness of Austin Jackson and the White Sox

You understand this well enough you might as well have been born with it: the 2015 Red Sox were a failure, and while a number of things went wrong, nothing sunk them quite like the twin disappointments of Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez. Both big investments turned out to be negative-WAR players, and now as we turn our attention to the season ahead, there’s a lot riding on how those two players perform. Most recently, they were genuinely awful, and there’s no other way around it. This is something the Red Sox just have to deal with.

While the 2015 Red Sox were failing, the bleached equivalent was also failing, if a bit less visibly so. The White Sox accomplished less than they were hoping to, and while for them, as well, a number of things went wrong, two things that went very wrong were Adam LaRoche and Avisail Garcia. Sandoval and Ramirez, combined, were worth -3.8 WAR. LaRoche and Garcia, combined, were worth -2.5 WAR. They were less terrible, but they were terrible, and yet through the offseason they remained in place. As of a few days ago, Garcia was lined up to be a starter, and so was LaRoche. The White Sox, like the rest of the American League, intend to make a playoff run.

Given the situation, Chicago decided to sign Austin Jackson for a year and $5 million. It makes for an obvious fit. It makes for maybe the most obvious fit.

To be clear, this wasn’t Chicago’s plan from Day One. You don’t wait to execute your plan until after the start of spring training. The White Sox kind of just wound up here, after pursuing a number of higher-profile players. Yet the team was always reluctant to drop big dollars, and it’s also shown a hesitancy to lose a high draft pick. Jackson doesn’t cost a pick, and while he does cost an amount of money that could kill you if it were dropped from a high place, five million dollars isn’t much to a baseball team. This is an easy salary to fold in with the others.

To be clear, also, this isn’t a big splash. Fans get obsessed with big splashes, and Jackson might’ve counted a few years ago when he was a three- or four-win player. Jackson would appear to have declined, and at this point he’s a supporting player more than anything else. It’s not like the whole market just whiffed. The White Sox’s core remains the same White Sox core, uninfluenced by the latest transaction.

This just gets to something very simple with regard to roster management. The sexiest moves you can make as an executive improve the top of the roster. Think adding Jason Heyward, or Zack Greinke. You get less attention for raising the roster’s floor, because the players involved are less spectacular and focus stays concentrated on the stars, but teams usually need that depth. If you can add a win to a 0-win spot, that’s no less important than adding a win to a 2-win spot. Austin Jackson represents an added win or two.

I downloaded our depth-charts projections for position players. As of earlier, pre-Jackson signing, there were 186 hitters projected to bat at least 500 times. These are your regulars, and out of those regulars, five players projected to be worth less than a half-win above replacement. You’ve got one Rockies player, one Orioles player, one Diamondbacks player, and two White Sox players. Those being Adam LaRoche and Avisail Garcia. They were projected for a combined 0.1 WAR, over two positions. They weren’t in line to do nothing, but they definitely weren’t in line to help.

Enter Austin Jackson. Jackson isn’t projected to be good. He should be something in the vicinity of average, being a 29-year-old who doesn’t hit like he used to. But Jackson is going to play regularly, and it sounds like he’s going to bump Adam Eaton to a corner. Now, Melky Cabrera was also a disappointment in 2015, and he stands to lose some amount of playing time. But LaRoche and Garcia should lose the most, as they might come together to platoon at DH. This just shifts playing time from relatively bad players to a half-decent player. It’s that easy to understand.

As a quick examination, I looked at how every single team projects, and I summed up the top five individual projected WARs, and the next 10 individual projected WARs. Unsurprisingly, the top of the White Sox roster projects to be better than average, but the pool of supporting players projected to be worse than average. By this measure, it’s not dramatic, but the White Sox top five ranked 11th, while the next 10 ranked 18th. This move addresses the latter, bumping the White Sox up a few spots. It makes them that much more complete, and they even get to hang on to Garcia, whose talent they still love. They still get to see if he might develop, a little like the Cubs and Jorge Soler. This way he’s just not being depended on.

As Jackson goes, himself, he signed with the White Sox because he wants to stay a center fielder and try to re-establish value. It’s why he didn’t join the Orioles or the Angels. Based on the evidence, he’s still perfectly fine in the middle, so he should actually be a defensive upgrade over Eaton. At the plate, Jackson is nowhere close to his 2012 peak, that saw him slug .479. Jackson’s ground-ball rate has jumped ever since leaving the Tigers in July of 2014, but of some note is he’s actually coming off a career-best wRC+ on batted balls not on the ground. He owns an elevated career BABIP, and still being pretty young, Jackson shouldn’t be a total negative. He’s declined, but he’s useful. Again, an improvement is an improvement.

It’s a “why not?” move. For Jackson, he found a team that will let him play center field. And for the White Sox, they got to make themselves a little bit better at minimal cost. For five million dollars, the White Sox got deeper, and that’s been arguably their biggest problem. It’s still not entirely resolved, but it’s better, and in a division that’s completely wide open, the White Sox improved their own odds without losing anything of significance. Those chances don’t come up very often in March.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Bud Smithmember
6 years ago

Probably not the right place to put this, but how much longer will Adam Laroche’s career path mirror Adam Dunn’s? Pretty good in Arizona for a short period of time, then good for the Nationals for a few years, then awful for his first season White Sox…does he have an Adam Dunn bounce in him?