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The Cleveland Indians believe in Austin Jackson and so should we

In the wake of the Austin Jackson minor league deal, a wave of possibly absurd optimism sweeps one writer

Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Indians signed Austin Jackson to a minor-league deal the other day. It's a nice little move that could pan out or not, and it definitely serves a purpose. But I gotta say, this more than moved the needle for me. I don't know what it is about Jackson, but this signing filled me with an absurd amount of optimism.

The very idea of the minor league deal is one of optimism. Here we have a man who has made more than $20 million in his major league career and is entering his eighth season as a professional ballplayer. For a short stint there he had all the makings of a star and now he's agreeing to do all it takes to make it to the majors; going so far as to be willing to play in front of hundreds rather than thousands and get paid a comparative pittance.

Some might consider it a downgrade, the latest hint the end is near for Jackson. But to me, it reflects a desire to keep living the dream, and that is admirable to me. Anyone who signs a minor-league deal, especially the way Jackson did in the hope of playing for a front-running contender, it speaks to a love of the game (and perhaps wanting to get that 10 years in and lock in a nice pension). It reminds us of why we watch this silliness anyway. We don't care about millionaires, we just care about ballplayers.

As for Jackson specifically, I actually wanted the Tribe to sign him last winter. When they got Rajai Davis instead, it was fine with me if a bit disappointing. Who wouldn't want the 29-year-old outfielder over the 38-year-old? Then Davis did a great job of forging a place in Tribe history with his Game 7 home run, other late game heroics, and all the stolen bases. He was in the middle of everything all year. Meanwhile, Jackson slashed .254/.318/.343 and was worth -0.1 WAR with a miserable Chicago White Sox team. Then he hurt his knee and had surgery in June, ending his season. It seemed like the Indians made the right choice in the moment. Sure, they could have used 2015 Jackson in the playoffs when the outfield defense suddenly disappeared and cost them Game 6, but there was no 2015 Jackson in 2016. Just a post-surgery, weak hitting outfielder getting paid by a bad team.

There is a real chance Jackson performs like he did in 2016. In fact, it's likely. That's one of the reasons we keep stats, is to get an understanding of who and what players are and what they'll become. Plus he turns 30 in a few days. And he signed a minor league deal. Players of his style don't usually age gracefully. That all said, his entire stint in Chicago could be chalked up to simply a lost season. Before he got hurt he was on a team in the midst of a nosedive following a hot start, he had to deal with the whole Drake LaRoche situation, and his ace pitcher was approaching a psychological break that manifested in jersey-cide. It's not an ideal situation to flourish in professionally. Now he has a chance to play for the best manager in baseball on a playoff, if not World Series, favorite. All the pieces are there for a career renaissance in Cleveland.

It's not all unfounded, pointless optimism in Jackson. There's some study put in even it if is wrapped in hope and seen with rose-colored glasses. Using Baseball-Reference's "Similar Player" rating, the name that stands out on Jackson's page is Dexter Fowler. The two started off so similarly in their careers, both speedy center fielders with good gloves and some pop. Then life happened and they diverged immensely, to the point where in the same off-season one got a generational amount of money and the other is hoping to get any playing time at all. Fowler also had one of his best seasons at age 30 though, finding new life on a contending team that had big dreams. he was central to them realizing those dreams. This is not my expectation for Jackson, but there's a quiet hope I have that he will find his stride again. he left the AL Central and got worse. Maybe he just has to come home, get comfortable and get pushed by all the talent, drive and expectation on the Indians, and thump on the Detroit Tigers. Nothing cures what ails you better than revenge.

Statistically, there's a glimmer of hope, or at least intrigue. He experienced a spike in fly ball rate compared to ground balls, going from 24.2 percent in 2015 to 32.4 percent for flies and from 51.1 percent to 37.3 percent on grounders. Line drive rates jumped from 24.3 percent in 2015 to 30.3 percent. While the grounder rate dropping might hurt his very high career BABIP (.350) because they become hits more often than fly balls, the spike in liners might alleviate some of that. He also hit the ball harder, 34.2 percent of the time in 2016 against his career 29.9 percent rate. His hitting the ball with more authority, and in the air, should lead to more extra-base hits and home runs in theory, though he hit no homers in 2016 despite being on the South Side. His extra-base hit rate in his abbreviated season was 6.9 percent, lower by a couple ticks than his career rate. He's not going to lead the league in triples like he did as a younger man. None of this dissuades me, because he's still hitting the ball harder, and in the air more. In the middle of January this is enough to convince me of a big comeback. Combined with the chance to be part of something great in Cleveland, that aforementioned career year could be in the offing. If it happens it won't be like we've seen before from him. But it will be real neat.

Maybe it's just because of memories seared into my brain of him flying about the bases for the Tigers, whaling on the Indians and sparking a destructive offense, but I think he can be a major league player for the Indians, and a decent one at that. If a 38-year old Rajai Davis can have the kind of year he did last season, why can't a newly 30 Austin Jackson? Hope is often foolish. Optimism can make one look like a jackass. But that's fine with me. Jackson believes in himself enough to swallow his pride and take his best shot at glory, why can't we believe in him?