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Hold on, Austin Jackson might not be the starting center fielder after all

This is great news for anybody addicted to transactions.

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World Series - San Francisco Giants v Detroit Tigers - Game 4 Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It was all gravy for the Giants yesterday, as they signed Austin Jackson to a two-year deal, seemingly ending the heavy lifting for the offseason. Jackson was going to be the starting center fielder, with a slight chance of Steven Duggar sneaking away some of his at-bats against right-handed pitchers, and that was going to be that.

Except, hold on, apparently I was jumping to conclusions. According to Andrew Baggarly’s sources, the Giants are looking at Jackson to be something of a super-fourth outfielder. From the Athletic:

Those in the know tell me that the Giants signed Jackson to serve as a depth piece at all three outfield spots, reprising the successful role he held with the Cleveland Indians last year.

It was also confirmed by the GM Emeritus, Brian Sabean:

This makes sense on one level. This doesn’t make sense on at least one other.

It makes sense because that’s probably the role that suits Jackson the best. While he doesn’t have any dramatic platoon splits over his career, he had substantial splits last year. While that doesn’t necessarily have to mean something it doesn’t not have to mean something, either. I’d guess sample size, but there’s a chance the disparity is telling us that Jackson is best when used selectively. The Indians did this with great success last year.

This also makes sense because the Giants have a pair of over-30 bookends in the outfield, and getting a fourth outfielder who is a little more qualified than the average fourth outfielder is probably important. Never forget that the Giants used their above-average fourth outfielder to win two championships when they were faced with midseason surprises. If there’s any team that understands how important a super-fourth outfielder is, it’s this one.

Where it doesn’t make sense is with what happens now. The Giants have worked extraordinarily hard to stay under the luxury-tax threshold, going so far as to trade away a pitcher they were counting on for their rotation. They’re not going over it now. If Jackson is really going to be a super-fourth kind of player who’s being counted on for 300 or so at-bats in the Gregor Blanco tradition, who is the starting center fielder?

If it’s Steven Duggar against righties and Jackson against lefties, that would make sense, even if I’m not a huge fan of platooning a rookie right away. Duggar has actually hit lefties better in two of his three professional seasons, and while that might be a sample-size gremlin, I’d be more in favor of him developing into a well-rounded, full-time player. A strict platoon would seem to be an obstacle to that.

It might make the Giants better for 2018, though, and that seems to be the top priority, so maybe they’re not too concerned with it. Just based on the information that’s available to us, it sure looks like Duggar would be the second part of this puzzle.

But there could also be a trade for a low-cost, pre-arbitration center fielder in the works, as Baggarly suggests. The Brewers have both Brett Phillips and Lewis Brinson coming up, and both of them can play center. This means Keon Broxton would appear to be a fine fit, except he would probably cost the Giants some prospects they would miss. If they’re really anticipating that Duggar is the center fielder of the future, they wouldn’t be too keen on parting with a lot to get a co-center fielder of the future.

The Giants would have to thread a very tiny needle, then. Something that goes like this:

  • Excellent defender
  • Pre-arbitration, or making very little money
  • Some major league experience, because if they’re going to just throw a rookie out there, they already have one of those
  • Not so good that he would cost Heliot Ramos or Tyler Beede, considering how high they are on Duggar being the center fielder of the future
  • Left-handed, to break up the right-handed options in the outfield (not required)

For example, the Giants likely can’t get Kevin Kiermaier from the Rays, even if they offer two or three of their best prospects, but what about Mallex Smith? Left-handed, has some vrooom, solid defensive reputation, not completely helpless as a hitter, cheap ... there might be a fit.

The problem is that there aren’t a ton of these fits. Here are all the young-ish players who appeared in at least 10 games in center last year. Most of them will either cost too much in a trade (from Christian Yelich to Taylor) or wouldn’t really be worth the effort compared to Duggar. While I’m something of a Zack Granite fan (he’s blocked by Byron Buxton and several other Twins outfielders), it’s hard to see the Giants giving up prospects for a slap-hitting lottery ticket instead of simply going with Duggar.

(If the Twins are willing to deal Granite for a low-level pitcher, let’s talk. Just the puns alone would be worth it. Would a trade for Granite be automatically referred to as a “counter” offer? Discuss.)

It’s possible that the best option is someone like Broxton, even if he does quasi-block Duggar. The thinking there would be that too many good young players would be a fine problem to have, with a supporting point being that Duggar is hardly a sure thing.

My guess, though, is that Dugger is going to get a lot more at-bats than we’re expecting. It’s either that, or the Giants get someone like Peter Bourjos, who would make the major league minimum. Someone like, say, Gorkys Hernandez, if he’s available.

There’s still some work to do, though. Apparently Austin Jackson isn’t automatically the starting center fielder. That seems like an important update.