The Rays, the report says, are close to finalizing a deal that will send Jackson to the Detroit Tigers in exchange for power-hitting outfielder and Tampa native Matt Joyce.
With a surplus of starting pitching in Tampa Bay, this move was hardly surprising. David Price, the top prospect in baseball, is expected to join the Rays' starting rotation in spring training. The rotation, with the emergence of Price and several other elite arms waiting in the wings, was overcrowded, potentially leaving an odd man out between Jackson and crafty right-hander Andy Sonnanstine if the situation was not addressed prior to spring training.
Andrew Friedman did not let it come down to that, though. Instead, he decided to trade from an area of strength to address the Rays' need for an upgrade in right field by acquiring Joyce.
Jackson has tremendous stuff, with a mid-90s heater that he showed off to the world in the postseason. Once considered among the top prospects in the minors, he has never fully lived up to the hype, though. He is maddeningly inconsistent, and command issues have prevented him from turning into the dominant starter that scouts envisioned.
Jackson still could develop and turn into something special as a late bloomer, but odds are against this from happening. Generally, pitchers are what they are. Scouts are still intrigued by his pure talent, though, and he still has the raw ability to breakout in the right situation. Could he pull off a Gavin Floyd, turning the corner in his career? At first glance, one might assume that the hard-throwing right-hander did so in 2008 for the Rays.
Jackson won 14 games, which ranked among league leaders. However, he can thank his excellent defense, teammates and a fair share of, well, luck for the career-high win total. The rest of his statistics leave a bit to be desired, as he posted a 4.42 ERA, 101 ERA+ (league average is 100) and telling 1.51 WHIP.
Opponents batted .281/.351/.444/.795 OPS against Jackson, a line good enough to bring in solid dollars on the free agent market for a hitter. His peripheral statistics were concerning as well, as he produced rates of 5.30 K/9, 3.78 BB/9, 1.40 K/BB. He also ended up surrendering 90 earned runs on 199 hits, including 23 home runs, in a career-high 183.1 innings pitched. His .301 BABIP sat around league average, which means that he was not all that unlucky, either.
Compared to Jackson's 2007 campaign, this year was a major step in the right direction, though. He was simply awful in his first stint in Tampa Bay, in fact, going 5-15 with a 76 ERA+.
With all that said, Jackson can dominate at times. If Detroit can make some tweaks and get things to click for their new acquisition, the 25-year-old right-hander could be a nice surprise. Although he is likely to slide right behind Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman and Armando Gallaraga in the Tigers' rotation, he could also add some value in a late-inning relief role. His new team has some bullpen issues, which GM Dave Dombrowski is looking to address this winter. According to some reports, however, he takes a while to warm up and is better suited as a starter.
On the Tampa Bay side, there have been some skeptics wondering if the club could have received more for their coveted pitching asset. In reality, though, Friedman picked up a promising bat in Joyce, who adds an immediate upgrade over Gabe Gross at the position. He is a solid defensive outfielder at each corner spot—trumping Gross, whose biggest asset is his defense, in this regard—with more offensive upside.
Joyce began the year at Triple-A Toledo, where he produced a line of .270/.352/.550/.902 OPS and belted 13 home runs in 200 at-bats. He then made a solid debut in Detroit, hitting 12 home runs, with an .831 OPS, in 92 games. He has a pure left-handed swing with a solid approach, but he does strike out quite a bit; he produced a 31% K rate in the International League, with a 26.9% mark in the majors.
Joyce has struggled a bit against lefties as well—.227/.393/.318 line in a small sample size of 22 at-bats with Detroit. Thus, he is an ideal platoon candidate who will see the majority of at-bats at the position against right-handed pitching.
Regardless, this seems like a victory for the Rays for a few other reasons as well. First, considering the Florida Marlins' asking price for outfielder Jeremy Hermida, the franchise once again brought in significant value at a reduced price relative to the market. Jackson, while an asset, was expendable—certainly more so than several of the prospects rumored to be included in the Marlins' proposal, which was rejected.
Also, Joyce is under team control, at an affordable price, for six more seasons. At 24, he is likely to improve, potentially developing into a real impact player in the near future while offering an upgrade in the short term. His arrival likely will bring an end to Gross' days with the organization, though, which frees up payroll that could be used to help bring in a premier free agent bat (which is still necessary).
Equally as important, Joyce is an above-average fielder who will fit in nicely alongside Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton in an outstanding defensive outfield. The Rays converted a higher percentage of batted balls hit into play into outs in '08, as their excellent run prevention efforts helped them win the American League East. With the entire starting lineup returning and an apparent upgrade in right field, Tampa Bay now returns a potentially stronger defensive unit going forward. Friedman built his roster with run prevention in mind last winter, which is why it was unlikely for him to pursue a poor defense, Raul Ibanez type.
While Jackson has tremendous tools, he was unlikely to ever amount to much more than a fifth starter in the pitching-heavy Tampa Bay organization. The Rays were able to trade in his services for a solid-hitting, cost-efficient outfielder who is solid on each side of the ball.
It is too early to tell, of course, but it seems as if Friedman has made yet another excellent move.
To reach Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com. To hear Hissey discuss the trade on the RaysDigest Podcast tomorrow at 5:30, use the media player below. Tommy Rancel of DRaysBay.com is expected to appear as a guest. The call-in number is (646) 929-1960.