Somewhere under the radar: Chapter I

A's Conor Jackson is hitting .261 with one home run and 20 RBI this season. (Ben Margot/AP Photo)

Over the next week or two or three we're going to try to preview the trade market as best we can. The original idea was to cover everything in one big long blog post, but I maxed out the character limit on our blogging software, so I figured I'd better break it up. Don't waste your time looking for some sort of pattern with regard to the order of the posts, because there isn't one. We're going to focus on two main themes: the Phillies payroll as it relates to this season and seasons to come, and potential acquisitions who aren't Josh Willingham, because we've already written enough about him.

Here's a little story about a guy with health problems that nearly derailed his career.

He was an up-and-coming power-hitting right fielder who suffered a freak medical condition that cost him all of one season and limited his effectiveness in another. A cost-concious team took a low-risk chance that he with good health he would fulfill his potential. His first season back on the field, he got off to a slow start. At the end of June, he was hitting .235/.333/.353 in 100 plate appearances. Only four of his 20 hits went for extra bases. This is the story of 28-year-old Jayson Werth, and in the last two months of that 2007 season he hit .329/.438/.512 with 18 extra base hits, including five home runs, in 204 plate appearances.

Ever since Werth left for the Nationals, a faction of the Phillies fan base as grasped desperately at players who just might be the next Werth. May Jeff Francoeur is a late-bloomer? Maybe Ben Francisco could be the next Werth? Hey, John Mayberry is around the same age with a similar build. But all of those players hit developmental walls. Conor Jackson, on the other hand, has endured a couple years of Werthian health maladies. From 2006 to 2008, he hit .292/.371/.451 with 42 home runs in 1,440 at-bats for the Arizona Diamondbacks. He was 26 years old and one of the National League's rising stars.

But in 2009, he came down with a rare virus called Valley Fever, which sounds like Mono's evil twin brother. Smothering fatigue, achy joints -- all that's missing is a medeival cart man collecting corpses and yelling, "Bring out your dead!"

Jackson played in just 30 games that year. Last season, after a trade to Oakland, he suffered an abdominal injury that resulted in a couple trips to the disabled list and then sports hernia surgery in early September. His final line for 2010: .236/.336/.327 with two home runs and 15 extra base hits in 241 plate appearances.

This season, Jackson finally appears healthy. Through 58 games, he was hitting .265 with a respectable .346 on base percentage. But his power has been non-existent. Only nine of his 48 hits have gone for extra bases, including one home run, for a paltry .326 slugging percentage.

Maybe Jackson will never regain the power he showed in his first three seasons in the majors. Chances are, he will never experience a career renaissance like the one Werth enjoyed. But a few things to keep in mind:

1) Even in his healthy years, Jackson's power came in the second half of the season. From 2006-08, he hit 23 home runs and 68 extra base hits in 650 at-bats after the All-Star Break. In those three seasons, he hit 19 home runs and 68 extra base hits in 790 at-bats before the All-Star Break.

In 2007, he was hitting .266/.366/.399 with five home runs, 20 extra base hits (out of 62) in 233 at-bats, 273 plate appearances. After the break, he hit .308/.371/.555 with 10 home runs and 25 extra base hits (out of 56) in 182 at-bats, 204 plate appearances.

2) Of Jackson's 205 plate appearances this season, 139 have come in stadiums that were among baseball's 10 least-homer-friendly in 2010, according to ESPN's Park Factors. And 131 of his plate appearances have come in stadiums that were among baseball's seven least-doubles-friendly in 2010.

3) As cliche as the term has become, Jackson has always been a disciplined, professional hitter. He's good with two strikes (20-for-76, four doubles, 23 strikeouts this season, .202 AVG, .610 OPS for career). He is averaging a strikeout every 7.9 at-bats this season and 7.7 for his career. This season, 77 percent of his plate appearances have resulted in him putting a ball in play, and another 9.8 percent have resulted in a walk. Although he is hitting more balls on the ground than usual, his line drive rate is actually above his career-average.

On Sunday, Jackson went 3-for-4 with a double against Roy Halladay. He is 9-for-28 with four doubles and two walks against Tim Lincecum in his career, including 2-for-6 with an RBI this season. he is 10-for-22 with two home runs and a double and three walks against Giants lefty Jonathan, including 1-for-4 with a walk this season. This season he is 2-for-5 with two doubles and a walk against Rangers lefty C.J. Wilson.

4) Jackson spent part of the offseason recovering from sports hernia surgery.

None of this is to say that Jackson is destined for a breakout second-half, or to suggest that he should be the Phillies' primary target in their search for a right-handed bat. But his base salary this season is $3.32 million, which is small enough that the Phillies could handle it and even another acquisition, yet big enough that Oakland probably wouldn't mind shedding it if and when they decide to look toward next year (Jackson will be a free agent after the season). Oakland also has a slew of relievers who could be available.

If the Phillies can't reach a deal on one of their top targets, perhaps they should try to buy low and take a low-risk gamble on a guy whose best months are ahead of him. They'd owe him around $1 million for the final two months of the season, so it wouldn't exactly be a cheap gamble.

At worst, he is a right-handed bat who can play multiple positions and make contact or draw a walk off the bench. He can give Ryan Howard a day off at first base. He can even play a game at third base in an emergency. Maybe that isn't worth replacing one of the two utility men the Phillies are carrying.  

At best, Jackson could make a belated re-discovery of a bat that once made him one of the top young players in the game. He is only 29 years old, so he is still in his physical prime. Maybe his playing strength will return with time.

Those are big maybes. But at the right price, they could be worth acquiring.

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