MLB.com Columnist

Barry M. Bloom

Jackson finds himself at center of White Sox plans

Defensive specialist signs one-year deal in Chicago

Jackson finds himself at center of White Sox plans

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Austin Jackson arrived at Camelback Ranch on Monday morning, a day after signing a one-year, $5 million contract as a free agent. He said he was happy to be in a new White Sox uniform and not too worried right now about how much time he'll be playing.

That's going to work itself out in the weeks ahead. Right now, Jackson will just get into baseball shape and be ready to play in Cactus League action in about 10 days. But when he plays, he certainly will be in center field.

"That was very important to me," said Jackson, in the hours before the White Sox traveled to Tempe Diablo Stadium and beat the Angels, 9-4. "It made the decision [about signing with the White Sox] very easy for me."

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By any metric, Jackson is an excellent defensive center fielder. The right-handed hitter will get most of his early starts against left-handed pitching, White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. But Jackson also gives the team flexibility.

"I think right now he'll play mostly against lefties, but [Jackson's] a tremendous defender," Ventura said. "So there's an opportunity for him to go out [to center] and [Adam] Eaton can move around a little bit."

Merkin on Jackson to White Sox

Jackson is a lifetime .278 hitter vs. right-handers and .261 against lefties, which is counterintuitive but makes some sense. There are more right-handed pitchers in Major League Baseball, and Jackson has an additional 1,386 at-bats against them than southpaws.

"Eventually we'll work into [playing Jackson against right-handers]," Ventura said. "Playing time is earned, and we'll just go from there. We just got him and will see how it goes."

Adam Eaton will move to the corners during games those two are in the lineup, Ventura added. Melky Cabrera and Avisail Garcia are also in the outfield mix. It's not beyond the pale that J.B. Shuck also could make the team if the White Sox carry five outfielders when they open the season in Oakland on April 4.

"That's still up in the air," Ventura said. "Knowing [Jackson's] here changes the dynamic somewhat."

The White Sox also have this option: They designated Mike Olt for assignment to make room for Jackson on the 40-man roster. Olt cleared waivers Monday was sent to Triple-A Charlotte and remains in camp.

Other than Olt, the player most affected by Jackson's arrival is Eaton, the incumbent center fielder, who was obtained from the D-backs in a three-team deal before the 2014 season. Eaton is a .293 hitter in his two seasons with the White Sox and played in 153 games last year, starting 144 of them in center field.

Eaton's diving grab

Eaton hasn't played the corner spots since the 2013 season in Arizona when A.J. Pollock took his spot in center field.

Then D-backs general manager Kevin Towers opened up the starting job in center for Eaton by trading Chris Young to the A's after the 2012 season. Baseball sometimes is about timing and opportunity. Eaton blew out his left (throwing) elbow during Spring Training and began 2013 on the disabled list.

"We thought he was going to have Tommy John surgery," said Towers, now an assistant to the general manager in Cincinnati, who just happened to be at the game Monday.

By the time Eaton returned July 29, Pollock had supplanted him in center. Eaton played in 66 games, and then he was gone.

For a number of reasons, Eaton is back at a similar juncture. He underwent arthroscopic surgery to clean up his left shoulder this past October and isn't expected to return until near the end of Spring Training. Eaton said Monday he's at 100 percent, making about 100 throws a day. This time, though, the protagonist is Jackson, not Pollock.

"Oh yeah. This game is never-ending in that aspect, you're always trying not to be replaced and you always have to fight for your job every year," Eaton said outside the clubhouse Monday. "Never get comfortable in this game, because as quickly as you get comfortable, you're out of a job and baseball moves on without you.

"[Jackson's arrival] will make me better as a player for sure, and [I'll] continue to work as I have day in and day out. But at the end of the day, the White Sox are better, and that's all I care about."

Meanwhile, Jackson seemed at ease as he talked with the media outside the clubhouse, virtually in the same spot Eaton had spoken only hours earlier.

Jackson had just been through his first workout in White Sox black and white. The winter of his discontent is over. Jackson had discovered to his own chagrin that despite top defensive tools, a .273 lifetime batting average, a .304 on-base percentage and 106 stolen bases, he was down near the bottom of the free-agent outfielder list.

Signed and in his fourth big league uniform since July 31, 2014, Jackson was just able to breathe a sigh of relief.

"I was always in good spirts, always talking to my agent, making sure that he was getting all the information to me," Jackson said. "It was a smooth process once it got started, and now I'm here."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.