SEATTLE -- Among the items not on the Mariners' shopping list as they prepare for next week's Winter Meetings in San Diego are a center fielder or a leadoff hitter. The club feels it filled those needs last July with the addition of Austin Jackson by trade from the Tigers, though fans who watched the 27-year-old struggle through much of the season's final two months with Seattle might not feel so assured.
Manager Lloyd McClendon was Jackson's mentor in Detroit when the youngster broke in with the Tigers, working as his hitting coach and confidant for his first four seasons in the Majors. After McClendon moved to Seattle to take over the Mariners, he welcomed the July 31 trade that reunited him with the smooth-striding center fielder.
But Jackson hit just .229/.267/.260 in 54 games with Seattle, a far cry from his production in Detroit, where he'd put up a .277/.342/.413 line in his first five years in the big leagues and was a key member of Tigers teams that qualified for three American League Championship Series and one World Series during his time there.
Whether it was pressing in a new situation, struggling to adjust to a new environment or just getting out of whack at a bad time, Jackson struggled offensively. His defensive presence and speed on the basepaths certainly helped and his playoff-tested calm was a positive influence on a club that posted a 31-23 record following his arrival, but there definitely is more to Jackson's game.
"From what I saw with Austin -- and I probably know Austin better than anybody -- I think he's going to be just fine," McClendon said. "We didn't see the best of Austin Jackson, for a number of different reasons.
"One, he was a little beaten down physically," said McClendon. "He needs to get himself stronger this offseason. He has to find a way to keep the weight on. And there's some things from a mechanical standpoint we need to shore up. But this guy is a good player. He's an above-average center fielder defensively and an above-average offensive player when he's going like he can go."
Before heading home to Garland, Texas, for his offseason, Jackson acknowledged there were some significant adjustments in a season where he was pulled midgame from his familiar Tigers team and dealt to Seattle in a three-way non-waiver Trade Deadline deal that shuffled Nick Franklin to the Rays and David Price to Detroit.
But Jackson talked upon his arrival with the Mariners about how he was excited about a new chapter in his baseball career, and he echoed those same thoughts at season's end after Seattle battled to the wire before falling one win short of a playoff for the AL's final Wild Card spot.
"This season was just a whirlwind for me," Jackson said. "Obviously trades happen all the time, but just the way it happened and how passionate I was about where I was at, it was tough for me. But once I got here and realized not only the talent, but the team chemistry and how young and fiery this team was, it reminded me a lot of my first year when I was in the big leagues and was just excited to be there and wanting to win."
Jackson broke in with the Tigers in 2010, a season in which Detroit led the AL Central in mid-July before fading down the stretch to finish 81-81 as he took second in the AL Rookie of the Year Award balloting. The following year, Detroit won its division and advanced to the ALCS, starting an impressive run of playoff appearances that whetted Jackson's appetite for more now in Seattle.
Jackson is pretty certain his new group of teammates will be thinking and working long and hard this offseason to take that next step.
"I remember that feeling of getting close that first year, where you're almost there and come up short, and it lit a fire," Jackson said. "These guys have that same feeling now. That sour taste of coming up short pushes you to train a little bit harder, get your strength back and come ready for next season. Having another year of experience under your belt will definitely help this team a lot."
Next year will be big for Jackson individually as well. He's entering the arbitration process for the final time this offseason after making $6 million in 2014, and he will hit free agency at the end of the season.
Jackson said his time in Seattle last season opened his eyes to some things he needs to hone in on this winter.
"That last month was a grind," Jackson said after batting .191 in his final 27 games. "Especially being in Detroit and coming here and dealing with different time zones and your sleep gets all screwed up and eating gets screwed up. But me getting a chance to experience that, I'll have a better game plan for next year. The offseason for me, I'm really big about getting my body physically back in better shape. I want to be out there every day, so in order to do that, you have to train hard."
At 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, Jackson relies on his speed and athleticism. He stole 11 bases in 13 attempts in his two months with Seattle after just nine in four months in Detroit. But his gap-to-gap power diminished and Jackson totaled just five doubles, one triple and no homers with the Mariners after racking up 25 doubles, five triples and four homers with the Tigers.
McClendon knows what lies within the Texas native, and he feels he has a good grasp of what it will take to bring that out again.
"We have to clean his [swing] path up," McClendon said. "When he came here, it was not same swing I saw when I had him in Detroit. There are some things he needs to work on, and he knows what those things are. And from a physical standpoint, he has to get a little stronger. I think he wore down a little toward the end. But I'm very confident that going into next year, you'll see a different player."