Not all the guys that a team ought to pursue during the offseason cost big bucks, not all of them should be expected to make a big splash and not all of them even need to be counted upon to produce. Scrap heap finds and diamonds in the rough abound in the minor league free agent market where, for example, the Tigers not too long ago dug up a guy named Al Alburquerque (and nobody, at the time, had any earthly idea what Dave Dombrowski was thinking).
One guy that I would like to see the Tigers take seriously – and there will be many more – is OF/1B Conor Jackson, who spent all of 2012 with the White Sox’ AAA affiliate. He’s a 30-year-old right-handed hitter with a career .758 OPS (in almost 2500 major league plate appearances). That’s better than Delmon Young, and unlike Delmon Young he’s actually a decent defender in right or left field. And, as opposed to being an all-or-nothing hacker, Jackson keeps the strikeouts down and the walks up – even when other parts of his offensive game aren’t exactly clicking.
Now obviously all this comes with a catch – otherwise Jackson would be getting the same sort of interest on the free agent market as somebody like Cody Ross. As it is, he’s looking for an invitation to camp, a trip to AAA and at least the hope that the club’s major league roster might actually have a role he could fill. Jackson put up an .809 OPS in 2006, an .835 in 2007 and an .824 in 2008 for the Arizona Diamondbacks and you might have made the case that the 26-year-old was a rising star. The past four years have been pretty awful for Jackson, though. He has been hurt and been ineffective and bounced back and forth between the majors and the minors. During that rough 2009-2011 he posted a .635 OPS in a sizable sample of 741 plate appearances. In 2012, of course, he didn’t see a single cup of coffee – though his AAA numbers were similar to what he did in Arizona from 2006 to 2008. The thing that he stopped doing is hitting for power – unfortunately. He was never an extreme power hitter, but his HR/FB rate dropped from 7.5-8% over his first four seasons to a clearly unacceptable 3.5-4% afterward. Sometimes those things do bounce back – if the player is given a chance. Brandon Inge recovered from a 3.3% in 2011 to 15% with the A’s this year. I’d also be very surprised to see Raburn repeat his 1.5% HR/FB rate in 2013.
If I’m talking about taking a gamble on Conor Jackson, that is going to be very much like taking a gamble on Ryan Raburn. Both have had promising starts to their careers come completely undone the past few years, both are right-handed hitters with sizable splits and both are solid defenders in the outfield corners but atrocious anywhere else. There is a key difference, though, for those of you opposed to keeping Raburn on principle: Jackson would be signed to a cheap minor-league deal and stowed in AAA for a rainy day if he didn’t seem to have it together in spring training. Raburn – unless Dombrowski works out some kind of big pay cut for him – is going to get over $2 million and need to be kept on big league roster. I have mentioned before that I am actually in favor of keeping Raburn – right-handed reserves that can hit are not easy to come by – but I would be doubly in favor of keeping him and signing Conor Jackson. Neither is a great bet to do more than passably well – signing both improves your odds. And as the Tigers found out time and again this past season – not having righties on your bench that can hit lefties is a significant vulnerability. And I suppose that I might as well mention – if you factor in the defense, Jackson from 2009 to 2011 was actually plenty better than Boesch 2012.