SEATTLE -- While most people have focused on the offseason acquisitions expected to make the Mariners better this coming season, manager Lloyd McClendon feels there's another move that should benefit Seattle a great deal in 2015.
General manager Jack Zduriencik added center fielder Austin Jackson from the Tigers at the July 31 Trade Deadline last season, but McClendon feels Seattle didn't see the real Jackson during the outfielder's initial two months with the Mariners, as the 28-year-old struggled at the plate.
So heading into a season of rising expectations, McClendon and the Mariners believe if Jackson returns to form, they'll have a catalyst atop a lineup now bolstered in the middle by Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager.
"Two years ago, Austin Jackson was probably rated the fifth-best center fielder in all of baseball," said McClendon, who was Jackson's hitting coach in Jackson's first four seasons in the Majors with Detroit. "He struggled a little last year, which goes to show you he's human. He made a transition from the Tigers to the Mariners, and it was a tough transition. But I suspect this young man will be pretty good for us. I know he's very dedicated to the game of baseball. He's settled in and happy to be here, and I would think he'll be a pretty darn good center fielder for us."
Jackson batted .277 with a .755 OPS in four and a half seasons in Detroit. But those numbers slipped to .229 and .527 in 54 games with the Mariners, leaving the Texas native wondering what happened. He acknowledges the midseason transplant took its toll and expects things to be far better with a fresh start this spring.
"Just getting a full year here will definitely benefit me," Jackson said. "Getting acclimated to the outfield, the hitting backdrop, all those little things you take for granted. Once you really get a chance to settle in somewhere, it helps tremendously."
Jackson said all the right things upon arriving in Seattle. Despite being traded away from a franchise where he'd been an integral part of three American League Championship Series clubs in four years, he insisted he was eager to start a new chapter in Seattle and happy to reunite with McClendon.
Jackson played an excellent center field, stole 11 bases in his brief time with Seattle and drove in the winning run in a dramatic 11th-inning, walk-off win over the Angels on the second-to-last day of the season as Seattle fought to the wire for an AL Wild Card berth. But the stretch run was a struggle offensively, as he hit .191 in the final 27 games after batting .265 his first month with the Mariners.
"Offensively, he was doing some things mechanically that we need to clean up a little bit," McClendon said. "It's nothing major. We'll work on that in Spring Training. From a defensive standpoint, he made us better. There's no question about it. He goes and gets the ball with the best of them. I think when you're happy and physically sound and where you want to be, you should play better. And I suspect that he will."
Jackson says he's more prepared now for the different travel schedule the Mariners deal with, the change in sleep that comes with three-hour time differences instead of the one-hour switches he was used to on a Midwest team. He worked hard this winter to get stronger physically, so he won't wear down as much. He's eager to get in the cage this spring with McClendon, whom Jackson says knows his swing better than anyone.
Mostly he's just ready to get back to doing what he's always done, which is get on base and score runs atop a productive lineup and patrol center field on a playoff-contending team.
"That last month of the season, obviously I didn't do as well as I'd like offensively, but that's just how the game is sometimes," Jackson said. "You try not to worry about the individual things and just do whatever you can to help the team win. I tried to catch every single ball hit out there. Hopefully it'll be a different year. I got my strength back in my legs, and hopefully it'll help out a lot this season."