In the end, it was all worth it for Edwin Jackson. All those years of bouncing around, from Los Angeles to Tampa Bay to Detroit to Arizona to Chicago to Toronto (for less than one day) to St. Louis to Washington – eight teams, before he even turned 29 years old, last September. All those years of being baseball’s version of Chucky Brown or Tony Massenburg or Joe Smith, a journeyman who was good enough to covet, but not viewed as quite good enough as to be indispensable.
It all became worth it for Jackson on Thursday, when the free agent starting pitcher, according to a report by Patrick Mooney of CSNChicago, agreed to a four-year, $52 million deal to return to Chicago – with the Cubs, not the White Sox, this time. Finally, it appears as if Jackson has found a long-term home.
“He’s like the Kevin Bacon of baseball,” Lance Berkman told me during the 2011 NLDS, of the man who had been his teammate with the Cardinals for less than three months. “‘Six Degrees of Edwin Jackson.’ I think Edwin is obviously a guy with a lot of talent, a lot of raw ability. I think teams see that. But I think he also has come a long way in terms of his polish. Early on, some of the teams may have traded him thinking, well, we need a guy that’s more polished, a guy that pitches and not just throws. I think Edwin’s developing into that. I think he’s finally starting to harness that tremendous talent. Who knows, he may end up with another team next year, but I’d like to see him back here.”
Of course, Jackson would end up somewhere else, with the Nationals – he is Edwin Jackson, after all – and at the time, he professed not to be bothered by his itinerant lifestyle. He was born in Germany, to an American father who was a military cook, and he was used to moving. “I’ve had a life on the go for a while,” he told me. “One trade, another trade, they all get to be the same. You have an opportunity to go out and pitch every five days, that’s all you can ask for.”
Still, part of Jackson longed for a place to put down roots, and for a contract he felt was commensurate with his skills. He thought he might get it last winter, when he first hit free agency, but the best offer he received was three years and $27 million from the Pirates, so he opted to take Washington’s one year and $11 million and audition for a big deal once again. That decision proved a wise one: The market for starting pitchers exploded this winter, and he was pursued by several teams, including, reportedly, the Padres, Indians and Rangers. Now, from 2012 to 2016 he will earn a total of $63 million, and he should be able to put his suitcases away.
What Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer and the rest of the Cubs' front office will be paying for is consistency. Even though Jackson has pitched for a half-dozen team since 2008, in both leagues and in a variety of ballparks, he has almost always delivered the same, above-average performance. He has won between 10 and 14 games in each of those years, and has finished with an ERA between 3.79 and 4.47 (with a cumulative record of 59-52, and a cumulative ERA of 4.06). He has also been extremely durable, as he has made between 31 and 33 starts in every season since he became a full time big leaguer with the Rays in 2007. Only eight pitchers – Justin Verlander, Dan Haren, Bronson Arroyo, CC Sabathia, Matt Cain, James Shields, Felix Hernandez and Mark Buehrle – have started more games than Jackson’s 189 during that period.
Last season, however, he demonstrated that he has continued the modest though definite developmental upswing to which Berkman alluded, that he has become a pitcher who can do more than unleash a 94 mile-an-hour fastball. He threw his fastball less than ever – just 53.8% of the time (down from 69.3% in 2008), and the result was that while his strikeout rate was the best of his career (8.0 per nine innings), he allowed fewer baserunners than ever before. His WHIP, as a National, was 1.218, a career low and 18th among NL starters.
He was, in other words, a pitcher who deserved a home, and the Cubs had reason to give him one. They haven't had a winning season since 2009 and bottomed out in 2012, going 61-101. Their rotation was the National League’s third-worst in 2012, with an ERA of 4.52 – four pitchers who finished the season with ERA’s higher than 6.30, Justin Germano, Brooks Raley, Chris Rusin and Chris Volstad, made at least five starts apiece for Chicago -- and they were in desperate need of credible major league starters, particularly after trading away Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm.
Chicago now has them, as Jackson was only the most recent experienced starter the club has signed, following Scott Feldman, Scott Baker and, earlier on Thursday, Carlos Villanueva. All four have upside remaining – Baker is the oldest, at 31 – and the Cubs added the quartet for a total cost of $73.5 million, which is exactly half a single Greinke.
The Cubs now have a real rotation, behind Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzjia, with which to begin its march back from irrelevance. No one – least of all Jackson himself – ever felt sorry for a man who earned $11 million last season, and who, as he said last October, was given the chance to be a major league starter every year. But now Jackson’s long journey has appeared to have come to an end, and now the Cubs have the sort of dependable, innings-eating, middle-of-the-rotation starter that every club needs, and at a comparatively reasonable wage. -- By Ben Reiter