PITTSBURGH — Add Austin Jackson to the Mets’ rotating cast of outfield characters.
The Mets signed Jackson to a league-minimum contract Friday to replace Matt den Dekker as a backup outfielder, a move Mickey Callaway framed as an investment in the club’s future because of what Jackson can teach his new teammates.
“We really value the things that he’s going to be able to bring to our young players,” Callaway said, citing Jackson’s plate approach, fundamental defensive play and clubhouse leadership. “Austin Jackson does a great job of staying up the middle of the field, driving the ball to right-center. And those are the type things that we want our young players to hone in on. We think that is going to be valuable to our approach in the future. We think it’s going to be vital to us winning more games in the future.”
Jackson struck out as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning of Friday night’s 5-4 loss to the Pirates. David Freese had a walk-off single against Tim Peterson, the last of his five RBIs.
Jackson said he was at home in Texas when the Mets called with a contract offer Friday morning. By 6 p.m., he was on the roster and at the ballpark. Four hours after that, he had to face All-Star closer Felipe Vazquez, who spotted a 99-mph fastball on the inner edge of the plate in Jackson’s first at-bat since July 7.
Welcome back to employment, Austin Jackson. “It’s definitely a challenging at-bat, let’s put it like that,” he said with a smile.
Michael Conforto hit a three-run homer in the first, but Jason Vargas allowed three runs in 4 1⁄3 innings in his first start off the disabled list after missing more than a month with a calf strain.
Jackson, like den Dekker, has a strong defensive reputation and should provide a bit more at the plate. In 59 games with the Giants this season, Jackson had a .242/.309/.295 slash line before he was traded to and released by the Rangers this month. Den Dekker, who was designated for assignment, went 0-for-18 with nine strikeouts in eight games.
With Texas on the hook for the rest of his two-year, $6-million deal with the Giants from last winter, the Mets will owe Jackson only a prorated amount of the league-minimum $545,000.
Jackson, 31, is a veteran of nine major-league seasons. The Mets are his ninth organization. The first was the Yankees, who drafted him in 2005, groomed him into a top-100 prospect and traded him to the Tigers as part of a three-team deal in December 2009 that brought Curtis Granderson to the Bronx.
Callaway knows Jackson personally from their time in Cleveland last season. If the manager wants Jackson to be a veteran voice in the clubhouse, that works for him.
“I try to do my part by sharing that information that I received over the years from a lot of good players, a lot of Hall of Fame players,” he said. “Whatever I can do to try to help a teammate get better, I feel like that’s my job.”
An outfield that started with five players competing for playing time at the outset of the season has had three of those players go down with injuries, including Juan Lagares and Yoenis Cespedes for the season. Jose Bautista, Dominic Smith, Phillip Evans, Ty Kelly and Kevin Kaczmarski have played outfield since.
Lagares’ absence since his season-ending toe surgery in May has been significant. “We’ve really missed him. There’s a lot of value in defense,” Callaway said. “If you can save two runs, it’s like scoring two runs. We saw that with Matt den Dekker. He did a great job defensively while he was here. With our pitching staff and the way we’re going to lean on our pitchers, we think defense is very important moving forward.’’