Jason A. Churchill, 1090 The Fan

PEORIA, Ariz. (1090 The Fan) — Among the key factors for the Seattle Mariners this season is centerfielder and leadoff hitter Austin Jackson. The club lacks ideal fallback options if Jackson isn’t some semblance of an answer at the top of the order. The 28-year-old was awful after the Mariners acquired him from the Detroit Tigers last July, managing a paltry .229/.267/.260 triple-slash (AVG/OBP/SLG) with 59 strikeouts in 236 plate appearances (25 percent). Seattle needs him to be more than that. A lot more.

Jackson went 2-for-2 Thursday including a triple into the gap in left-center field. He also drew a walk. The walk and the triple came off Oakland A’s lefty Scott Kazmir. The single was of the infield variety, earned with Jackson’s plus speed. That’ll work, right?

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Jackson batted .272/.337/.417 in 2013 and thanks to a red hot July was batting a respectable .273/.332/.398 at the time of the trade last summer. Anything in the range of either of the two above slash lines will work. He’s been hot and cold early this spring, but I do see a better set of mechanics from stride to contact. The swing has been, for the most part, a bit shorter and he’s getting his front foot down a split second sooner, which helps a batter trigger the swing on time.

He has Lloyd McClendon back — his hitting coach in Detroit for four years — and he’s playing for a contract, as he’ll hit the free agent market after the season. As much as the M’s need Jackson to hit, Jackson needs it, too. For his future.

One thought to stick in the back of the mind as the season approaches: If Jackson plays well, might the Mariners approach the Scott Boras client about a contract extension? And if they do, will they be willing to pay the projected market value? Boras clients almost always test the market, but if the money is right and the player wants to stay, it’s not unheard of for Boras’ players to sign before free agency. Colorado Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez and Los Angeles Angels right-hander Jered Weaver are two examples.

The Mariners do not have a soul in their organization beyond Jackson that could handle center in 2016, and the free agent market has exactly one legitimate center field defender that projects as an everyday player: Jackson.

For me, Jackson is a good bet for some level of a bounce-back season. The question is, does he jump back to 2013 form (2012 is out of the question, in my opinion), 2014 pre-Seattle form, or does he simply repeat the entirety of his 2014 output?

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Loser Out Competition?
If the Seattle Mariners ultimately decide on one shortstop between Chris Taylor and Brad Miller, one of many possible directions may Miller starting the year in Triple-A Tacoma and learning the outfield and third base to increase both his chances to get back to the big leagues, but to stay in the organization. It’s difficult to imagine the club moving Taylor off the position; he’s sound with the glove and his bat doesn’t profile well out of the middle of the field. Miller may have the punch to fit in left field, and perhaps center field isn’t out of the question, either.

Another possibility is a trade. While it seems highly unlikely the Mariners would specifically look to move the odd-man out — one can never have too many good players, particularly at shortstop and particularly if that player is Miller, whose offensive upside may ultimately compare to a J.J. Hardy cast. A trade cannot be ruled out, however, as clubs around baseball continue to lack options at shortstop, and some even at second base where both Miller and Taylor have some experience and have the ability to play regularly. One pro scout suggested to me Wednesday that Miller could be a great for the Arizona Diamondbacks, who have veteran Aaron Hill manning second base now, but don’t have an obvious next man up once Hill’s contract expires after next season. The New York Mets have been linked to shortstops for the better part of the past two years and several other clubs, such as the Philadelphia Phillies, lack young talent in general.

I’d bet on both players remaining in the organization beyond Opening Day, but at some point the Mariners will have to commit to one of them if they feel they don’t need both to handle the role. When that times comes, and if the choice is Miller, Taylor becomes prime trade bait. If Taylor is the choice, the first order of business is to decide whether Miller is more valuable to the team in trade or by transitioning to the outfield.

First Wave of Cuts
Manager Lloyd McClendon told the media Thursday that the first cuts will probably be made in the next 3-4 days. There will be at least one, perhaps two, additional cuts between now and Opening Day. The toughest decisions aren’t likely to be made until the final hours leading up to the club packing their things and heading to Seattle.

One way or the other, some good players will be headed to Tacoma. If you live in the area, this is probably going to be one of the more intriguing Rainiers rosters of the last several years, and there have been some good ones.

– Jason A. Churchill, 1090 The Fan

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