When Austin Jackson steps to the plate tonight in the bottom of the first inning, some Yankee fans might be surprised to see the centerfielder’s numbers. Jackson currently ranks third in batting average, on-base percentage and offensive bWAR, while his OPS+ of 150 stands behind only six others. Although it’s probably too soon to call him on of the game’s elite players, it’s not an exaggeration to say Jackson is having an MVP-caliber season.
The Yankees haven’t faced Jackson since April, so the upcoming four game series in Detroit will represent the 25-year old’s first chance to confront the team that drafted him with his breakout season. Since trading Jackson along with right hander Ian Kennedy (to the Diamondbacks) in a three-way deal that netted Curtis Granderson, the Yankees haven’t had much reason to regret the swap, until now that is. Sure, Kennedy’s 20 wins in 2011 probably gave pause to some, but it was easy (although not necessarily accurate) to explain away his success by attributing it to pitching in the weaker NL West. For that reason, many fans, and perhaps even some in the front office, haven’t batted an eyelash over the righty’s performance (especially now that he has drifted back toward league average). Instead, when evaluating the deal, the real comparison has been between Granderson and Jackson, and in 2011, it was no contest.
Note: AvgWAR = (bWAR+fWAR)/2. Monetary figure in parenthesis represents each player’s total salary from 2010-2012.
Source: baseball-reference.com and fangraphs.com
Granderson has followed up his outstanding 2011 with another strong season. However, by just about every metric, the 31-year old left handed slugger has taken a significant step back. Meanwhile, the much younger Jackson has reached a level that already stacks up to even Granderson’s very best years. Considering each player’s expected age-related career progression, and the relative salaries they will be making over the next few years, it’s not unreasonable to wonder whether Brian Cashman would secretly take a mulligan on a trade that looked as if it would end up in the win column before this season.
In the two-plus years since the trade was consummated, the apparent upper hand has changed repeatedly. It was too soon to render a verdict after both players’ mediocre 2010, still premature after Granderson had a vastly superior 2011, and just as presumptions now that Jackson has the statistical edge. However, if Jackson is able to maintain above average offense (not to mention an OPS+ of 150) and combine it with his defensive superiority, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which the Tigers won’t come out ahead in the trade’s final evaluation.
Normally, the Yankees’ financial resources would be a factor mitigating the imbalance between future potential and immediate impact, but with the team seemingly committed to remaining below the luxury tax threshold beginning in 2014, that may no longer be the case. Before that season, a soon-to-be 33-year old Granderon will be a free agent, and the Yankees will be presented with the dilemma of whether to offer a lucrative contract extension to a player who is still productive, but likely on the downside. At the same time, Jackson will be entering his prime, as well as his final two years of arbitration eligibility, making him a much more cost effective option for a team on a budget. So, even if Granderson winds up providing more value than Jackson over the foreseeable future, the financial implications could still be detrimental to the Yankees.
Curtis Granderson was acquired under the old CBA rules, so evaluating the trade based upon the new financial realities is presumptuous. However, if the organization remains committed to its austerity plan, the financial implications of the trade will become very relevant by 2014. In that sense, the final assessment of the deal might not be based on the relative performance of the players involved, but how much money the Yankees are willing to spend when it comes time to either re-sign Granderson of find his replacement.