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Jackson gives White Sox needed depth in outfield

Austin Jackson

GLENDALE, Ariz. – It was hard to imagine the White Sox proceeding into 2016 with a defensive outfield of (from left to right) Melky Cabrera, Adam Eaton and Avisail Garcia.

It didn’t make sense that they would upgrade the infield with Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie and a combination of veteran Jimmy Rollins and young’n Tyler Saladino at shortstop only to watch the open space beyond them go unattended.

What’s more, their best defender of them all, Eaton, hasn’t been able to play in center while he builds up arm strength, and while Eaton has guaranteed all who will listen that he’ll be out there by opening day, perhaps it was a level of doubt that caused general manager Rick Hahn to pull the trigger on signing Austin Jackson to a one-year, $5 million deal Sunday.

Jackson had been on the Sox radar for some time, and while he’s no Yoenis Cespedes, Alex Gordon or even Dexter Fowler for that matter – all of them pursued by the Sox but rejected by each player returning to his former team– Jackson makes the Sox better with added depth and in all likelihood a starting player.

And like Rollins before him, he very well may be coming to the South Side to be the Sox’ starting center fielder with Eaton moving to a corner.

“I do think most of Austin’s time will come in center,’’ Hahn said Sunday night.

The possibilities are many, and the flexibility is welcome. The Sox can now line up with Eaton in left, Jackson in center, Garcia in right and Melky Cabrera at designated hitter. Or, if Adam LaRoche happens to be healthy and producing at DH, an outfield of Eaton, Jackson and Cebrera with Garcia on the bench. Other combinations are possible, including Eaton at DH if need be. That wouldn’t be the best one, but now the Sox have a legit center fielder in place should Eaton be restricted.

Left-handed hitting J.B. Shuck, a decent pinch hitter and bench player last year, is another possibility should the Sox keep five outfielders.

“[Jackson’s] addition to the roster provides [manager] Robin [Ventura] with additional flexibility from both a defensive and offensive standpoint,’’ Hahn said.

“We still believe Avisail Garcia will convert on that talent and blossom into that player we think he can become. Jackson provides us with another alternative in the outfield, whether it’s to underperformance in the outfield or the DH spot.”

Hahn said he expects Eaton to be ready by Opening Day. Manager Robin Ventura said Sunday he won’t be concerned until “probably a week before the end of the [spring].’’ Ventura said trainer Herm Schneider isn’t “alarmed by it too much. I know Adam’s not either.’’

In Jackson, 29, who will be in camp Monday, the Sox get a right-handed hitter and skilled outfielder who batted .267 with nine homers, 48 RBI and 17 stolen bases between the Seattle Mariners and Cubs over 527 plate appearances last season. He’s also familiar with the AL Central, having started his career with the Detroit Tigers. In six career seasons, he is a .273/.333/.399 hitter with 55 homers and 106 stolen bases.

Hahn has been busy turning over the Sox roster. Jackson joins Frazier, Lawrie, Rollins, Alex Avila, Dioner Navarro and Mat Latos on his new guys list.

“For our team [Jackson] would add versatility in the outfield, some speed,’’ said Avila, a former Tigers teammate.

“He’s a very good center fielder, covers a lot of ground. The thing about Austin, he’s just a really, really great athlete.

“Obviously the front office has been busy trying to put together a group they feel is going to win some of those extra ball games, get you to that mark where you need to get to the playoffs. It’s exciting for the players.’’

To make room on the 40-man roster, the Sox designated Mike Olt for assignment.