Last week I took a look at the Cardinals' injury risk and depth, coming to the uneasy conclusion that the Cardinals had depth but also had several high injury risk players, as well as a couple of players that shouldn't be exposed against same-handed hitting. So it mostly depends on how things break for the Cardinals in 2016.
If they have good injury luck, then Matheny will be able to mostly hide Moss and Adams (and perhaps Wong) from left-handed pitchers. Also, older players like Holliday and Moss will be afforded regular rest. There's also the fact that many of the Cardinals' less experienced options like Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty, and Tommy Pham have less of a track record and thus we're less sure about how they'll perform. With everyone healthy, Matheny can play those playing well and bench those who are under-performing expectations. Alternatively, a couple of players could hit the DL and Matheny has no real choices other than playing those available.
Specifically for the oufield/first base situation, there is a third option. The free agent market has mostly been picked over. Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes, and Alex Gordon are all gone. But there exists a few more options. Dexter Fowler is probably out of the question for the Cards due to the fact that he has a Qualifying Offer attached. There's also Marlon Byrd, who has been an average to above average hitter over the last two years. He doesn't play center field though, and if the Cardinals' added someone it would be nice if they played center. We haven't really seen enough of either Grichuk or Pham to know whether they'll be good out there every day.
Then there's Austin Jackson. Jackson is a little younger than the average free agent as he just turned 29 on the first of this month. Rated as a strong defender consistently in his early years, Austin had a great 2012 season, posting a 134 wRC+ on way to a 5+ fWAR season. Some called it a breakout, but the last three years he's been essentially a league average hitter and a league average defender. That's nothing to scoff at though, and the Cardinals would certainly be improved by getting Jackson plate appearances that could be otherwise going to Charlie Tilson or Anthony Garcia. He also hits right-handed, which would make it easier to keep Adams and Moss away from left-handed pitching as injuries accrue throughout the season.
As a hitter, Jackson relies on a career of above average BABIP performances. His profile has typically otherwise featured league-average walk rates, above-average strikeout rates, and below average ISO rates:
Everything went right for Jackson in 2012, but that Jackson seems to not be the same as the current incarnation. However, he at least has that potential in him, at still just 29. The last three years offers a nice floor with some chance to recover his 2012 form. 2015 did see a career low BB% for him. Looking at his plate discipline stats, he posted his highest O-swing% since 2011, at 27.2%, down from 24.2% in 2014. However, he was as high as 26.5% in 2013, so this isn't completely out of the blue for Jackson. This affected the oppositions' approach slightly, as he posted his lowest Zone%, but only very slightly.
Looking at his batted ball stats, Jackson has always churned out line drives. Over the last three years, he's ranked 9th among qualified players in LD%, which I never would have guessed. This I think validates the consistently high BABIP. He's never hit a lot of fly balls, but last year he posted a career high 51% GB%. His game doesn't really depend on power.
Here's the thing though: The Cardinals probably don't get to sign Jackson as a fourth or fifth outfielder. As a free agent, Jackson will probably hold out for a promised starting position. While the main reason to add him is to add depth, he could actually take away PA from other younger, better options. Perhaps the Cardinals could sell him on being the starter to begin the year but that he needed to continue to perform to keep it. Let's compare him to our other options. We'll leave Matt Holliday out, as he is going to start either way. So we'll compare him to Moss, Adams, Pham, Piscotty, and Grichuk. We'll average Zips and Steamer's rate stats to get a sense for how they rank the Cardinals current depth as well as Jackson:
Indeed, according to the averaged projections, Jackson would be our 4th best player among those six, and adding him while guaranteeing him a starting job would actually make the Cards worse, assuming everyone is healthy. However, two of the better players have been injury prone, and all three better projected players have short MLB track records which means higher error bars. It only takes one injury or under-performance to make Jackson a nice insurance policy. We also have to consider that Holliday will be 36 coming into next season, changed drastically last year, and then strained his quad twice last year. So the Cardinals can't exactly just pencil him in for 600 PA of strong production anymore. There should be plenty of room for plate appearances for those that are healthy and performing, even with the addition of Jackson.
There have been few reports on Jackson's market thus far this off-season, so the public doesn't have any knowledge on Jackson's asking price or the offers he's been getting. Cleveland reportedly has interest but is also one of the more frugal franchises. Dave Cameron predicted he'd get $24M over two years. MLBTR suggested he'd take $12M over a single year, betting on himself to raise his stock for a better payday next year. The Fangraphs' crowd projections (included in the link to Dave Cameron's predictions) have him at $30M over three.
In prior years, the crowd has generally been low on the most elite players, and high on the lower end, so I think we can discount the crowd-sourced projection a bit. $24M over two years or $12M over one both sound more reasonable. One year deals are nice because of the lack of risk but a two year deal would also hedge the Cardinals' bets going into 2017. Moss is not under contract for next year. If Holliday is finally not all that good then it makes it easier to decline his option. It also lowers the Cardinals' reliance on Pham, Piscotty, and Grichuk, three players that probably won't all stick as starting-caliber players.
There's also the benefit of simply adding another asset to the team to possibly make others expendable later. Perhaps if there really is too much depth then the Cardinals could fill a hole that comes up by trading from said depth. Jackson would raise the Cardials' floor in 2016, but in the event that things go south, the Cardinals may decide to trade a few win-now pieces for prospects at the deadline. In that sense, Austin Jackson makes it easier to move a player in demand at the deadline
$24M is the going rate for about 3 wins on the market right now. So the question is, over two years, can Jackson achieve 3 wins over the Cardinals internal replacements? It's hard to say, as it depends a lot on the injury luck the Cardinals will experience in 2016. The more often Jackson can be expected to play over Tilson and Garcia, and take at-bats against lefties away from Adams and Moss, the more valuable he will be. In 2017, there would seem to be a clear case for playing time, with Moss and possibly Holliday gone, and possibly any of Piscotty, Grichuk, Adams, and Pham faltering in 2016.
Jackson probably falls a little short of providing a three win upgrade to the Cardinals over two years, but its close, and the Cards' spot on the Win Curve may just tip the scales. At $24M for two years of Austin Jackson, I would pull the trigger. Much above that though, and I'd prefer to go with the internal options. With Jackson still remaining as a free agent this late in the off-season, his price very well may end up lower than expected, in which case Mo would have opening to a get a nice discount on a player that completes the Cardinals' layering of depth.