It seems that many think that 2012 was a breakout year for Tigers CF Austin Jackson. And it was in some ways. Mainly, Jackson began to look the part of a number three hitter as opposed to a lead off guy, posting a career high with 16 home runs last year, but being less effective on the base paths. Of course, to be a number three hitter the power is going to have to come along further, but there are indications that Jackson could be able to do so. His BB rate and K rate were the best of his career to this point, showing a maturation as a hitter. If he can continue along those same lines, the Tigers could very well have themselves a long term solution at the position. Jackson doesn’t become a free agent until 2016 and he might be a prime extension candidate for another three or four years beyond that.
Given Jackson’s age, and the ability for the team to control him for several more years, the Tigers are pretty well set here. However, if Jackson should suffer injury, the situation in center field gets dicey in a hurry.
Quintin Berry is likely the first backup in case of a Jackson injury. Yes, the Tigers do have Torii Hunter for the next two years, but Torii’s days in center have passed him by I believe. Berry works better as a role player, and any significant time that he would have to spend on the field is likely to be a significant drop off from Jackson’s production.
The Tigers also have Avisail Garcia to play center in a pinch should they need it, but long term, he is definitely a right fielder.
The real issue is a couple years down the road. If the Tigers don’t extend Jackson, and he wants to test free agency. There is little in terms of potential in the farm system at the center field position. At this point, the focus is really on two guys; Daniel Fields and Austin Schotts.
Fields has been somewhat of an enigma for the Tigers ever since he signed for over slot money. He got a very aggressive assignment to the Florida State League his first professional season and handled it tremendously for his age. Problem is, he really hasn’t progressed much from there. There are mixed reviews on the quality of his defense, some think he has plus potential and is the best defensive outfielder in the system. Others see him as merely average to a little above. He got a promotion to Erie in the middle of the season last year, and after struggling early, he held his own once again, and even showed signs of flourishing on occasion. It doesn’t look like Fields is ever going to reach the high end ceiling the Tigers thought he had, however, he could become a useful big league players still. We shall see.
Schotts is even further away, and is learning the position, so it’s too tough to say with any certainty that he is the CF of the future. He looks like a talent, but he is going to be playing in his first full season of baseball in 2013.
As for others even further down the chain, two guys are kind of worth mentioning; Orvin Tovar and Miguel Paulino. Tovar has shown some ability with the bat, and has good physical skills, however, I do believe he ends up in a corner outfield position in time. Paulino is really raw with a bat in his hands, but he is worth mentioning because he was considered one of the better high school defensive center fielders in the 2012 draft last year.
Despite the system being relatively thin on the position, I am not all that concerned. Jackson was helped by a very good BABIP last season, much like 2010, and we may see another drop off in 2013, but I don’t think it will be nearly as bad as the last drop off from 2010 to 2011. His improvements at the plate seem very real to me, and I could see a further progression in his overall productivity still. They have Jackson for the next three years at the very least, and I think signing him for longer will become a priority for the Tigers barring some unforeseen events.
If not, I am a little bit comfortable at this point that one of Fields or Schotts will be able to do the job adequately by 2016.