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Brewers Reportedly Checked in on CF Austin Jackson

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The veteran is looking to bounce back in 2016.

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports
One of Slingin' David Stearns goals heading into his first offseason as Brewers' General Manager was to explore the market for a true center fielder, rather than play Domingo Santana out of position as the club did during the final month of last season. After the additions of advanced prospect Keon Broxton via trade and veteran Kirk Neiuwenhuis via waiver claim, one might have thought it was safe to assume the Brewers would be content with a competition between those two options for the spot in spring training. Well, apparently that assumption was wrong.

Derek profiled Austin Jackson as a potential free agent target back in November, and for good reason. Jackson will be 29 to start next season and has a track-record of being an above-average regular in center field. Jackson made his big league debut with the Tigers back in 2010 and was immediately a hit, posting a .293/.345/.400 slash in 151 games as the starting center fielder. He finished second in the rookie of the year voting to closer Neftali Feliz despite posting twice as many wins above replacement.

In his first four seasons Jackson totaled a .278/.344/.416 line with 42 home runs in 2574 plate appearances, good enough for a solid 107 wRC+. He was worth 14.8 fWAR and posted excellent defensive marks in center field. Things took a turn in 2014, however, as Jackson found himself traded to Seattle in a three team deal that also included the Rays. He struggled greatly in 54 games with the Mariners, hitting only .229/.267/.260 with no home runs.

Jackson was better than that in 2015, though he still produced a season that was well below his previous standards. He hit .272/.312/.387 with 9 home runs in 107 games in Seattle before getting traded to the Cubs on August 31st in exchange for a PTBNL. He posted a .679 OPS in 79 plate appearances for Chicago to end the season and collected one hit and a walk in nine plate appearances in the playoffs. Jackson became eligible for free agency for the first time this winter.

His market has been cool so far, dimming the hope of securing a multi-year pact from potentially interested parties. On a one-year deal however, he could be a terrific fit with the Brewers. He still managed to post 2.3 total fWAR last season thanks to a solid 7.5 UZR in center field, and his overall 94 wRC+ was within shouting distance of league average mark of 103 for his position. His hard rate rate of 30.4% was above his career norm while his .342 BABIP was 10 points below his career mark, suggesting a bit of bad fortune may have been in play as well. He does however strike out a fair amount at 23.5% for his career, and his walk rate of 5.5% last season was a career low. Jackson is a threat on the basepaths with four seasons of 15+ stolen bases.

According to the latest payroll projection, Milwaukee is slated to spend south of $60 mil on total payroll for 2016. Given that that number was up over $100 million last year it's easy to fathom that there is still money to spend this winter, even if ticket sales will decrease next year. Perhaps a one year deal in the range of $12 mil or so would be enough to convince Jackson to abandon his dreams of a multi-year deal until next winter, after he gives himself a chance to reestablish himself in the hitter-friendly confines of Miller Park.

The signing of Jackson would immediately slot him into the starting center fielder role and push Nieuwenhuis and Broxton into a battle for a reserve role or to the minor leagues. In the case of Neiuwenhuis, who is out of options, it could spell the end of his days on the 40-man roster. Jackson is obviously a more established and attractive candidate to play center field everyday than either of those two are, and he could also become a valuable trade chip at the deadline, even if he only returns a PTBNL like the Mariners got. That's one more prospect that the Brewers didn't have before. They also could conceivably keep him all season and if he performs well, extend him a qualifying offer in hopes of recouping a draft pick. Though that would backfire if he accepts.

There's no mention in the tweet though when the Brewers checked in on Jackson, so who knows if they're still interested. Maybe they are happy with what they've currently got in-house. It doesn't sound as though anything is imminent, though if Jackson lingers on the free agent market into February he'll be a name to keep an eye on.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs