Last winter, I was flummoxed at the league’s apparent lack of interest in Edwin Jackson. He’d just put up his third straight solid season at age 27, and had established himself as a durable, effective +3 to +4 win starter. Unfortunately, in that post, I made a pretty bad assumption:
Someone’s going to get a steal with Edwin Jackson, and given what he’s likely to do for the price he’s going to cost, the signing team should probably want to lock him in at these rates for the next few years. From Jackson’s perspective, he’s just been given a thorough rejection in his efforts to land a long term contract in a market where he should have been a pretty well sought after commodity, so he shouldn’t expect that posting another 200 inning season with a decent ERA will land him a raise next winter.
Guess what? Jackson posted another 200 inning season with a decent ERA and now he’s landing a huge raise, as the Cubs are reportedly set to sign him to a four year, $52 million contract.
On the one hand, it’s a little weird that Jackson could get a year older and pitch a little worse than he did in the prior year, and still see it result in 4/52 a winter after he settled for 1/11, but most of the weirdness is that he had to settle for 1/11 in the first place. Since Jackson’s breakout year with the Tigers in 2009, he’s thrown 812 innings and posted a 95/93/95 ERA-/FIP-/xFIP- line. Despite all the talk about his inconsistency, he’s given his teams 200 above average innings year in and year out, and his combination of effectiveness and health are a valuable package. Over the last four years, he’s been worth +14 WAR, regardless of whether you want to evaluate him by FIP or runs allowed.
In some ways, Jackson is the anti-Mark Buehrle, in that he has good stuff and a reputation for being inconsistent and losing his command of the strike zone. In other ways, though, Jackson is basically the same as Buehrle, as he gives you a reliable innings eater who can keep you in games but has enough deficiencies to fail the front-of-the-rotation starter test. Last year, at age 32, Buehrle signed a four year, $60 million contract. This is basically the market price for an above average innings sponge, and that’s exactly what Jackson is.
So, why would a rebuilding team like the Cubs want an above average innings sponge? Jeff Sullivan tackled that exact topic last week, when it was reported that they were on the verge of signing Anibal Sanchez. I’m just going to go ahead and quote him.
All right, we can still try to explain the Cubs’ interest. There are explanations for why this wouldn’t be so weird of a fit after all. We’ll begin just with the 2013 on-field product. There’s value in improving the team, even if the team doesn’t seem like a contender, because not only can contenders emerge by surprise, but fans simply respond better to a team that doesn’t suck so much. And with Sanchez, the 2013 Cubs might not suck so much. He’d join Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood, Scott Feldman, and Scott Baker as rotation candidates, and a pretty good rotation could be formed out of that group. The Cubs added Kyuji Fujikawa to the bullpen, and their run production could get a little better. With Sanchez, the 2013 Cubs could be a reasonable, respectable baseball team, and I’ll cite once more the 2012 Orioles and the 2012 Athletics. You never know.
The idea that bad-to-mediocre teams shouldn’t try to improve their clubs is just flat out wrong. We simply don’t know how to predict the future with enough accuracy to suggest that teams that don’t look like contenders should just lose on purpose. The marginal value of a win is higher for teams that are closer to contention, but it’s not zero for teams that are still working on stockpiling talent. And, when you have a chance to add a valuable player, that is stockpiling talent. Jackson wasn’t signed to a one year deal, and he’s not likely to turn into a useless waste of cash after this season. The Cubs just signed a quality starter for multiple years, and the truth about not being able to predict the future goes even more for years beyond the next one. We have no idea what the 2014 Cubs are going to look like, but it’s quite possible that their aggressive moves to improve this winter will have laid the foundation for them to make a run up the NL Central standings within the next couple of years.
After all, just last year, Jackson signed with a team that wasn’t necessarily expected to contend. When the Nationals signed Jackson, our lovable own poet Carson Cistulli wrote:
It’s possible that the Jackson signing represents an attempt on the part of Washington simply to not be mediocre. Or to be less mediocre. That’s a possible, if entirely uninspiring, explanation for the deal — because there’s value in being “just fine.” Furthermore, it’s possible that the Nationals see value in Jackson as a player either to flip for a decent prospect at the deadline, or from whom to gain a compensation pick in the 2013 draft after Jackson becomes a Type B free agent when the season is over.
For the Nationals to become actual contenders, though, at least one of the following three names will have to appear in fewer of manager Davey Johnson‘s lineups than is projected: Roger Bernadina, Ian Desmond, and Adam LaRoche.
It’s unlikely that any of those is an average major leaguer.
This is not to pick on Carson, but to point out that a year ago, it looked like the Nationals had big holes at first base and shortstop. LaRoche led all NL first baseman in WAR. Ditto Desmond and shortstops. Bernadina put up a 114 wRC+ in a super-sub role, and accumulated +1.9 WAR in less than a half season of playing time. Between the three of them, they racked up +11.1 WAR, and were a huge part of why the Nationals finished the season with the best record in baseball.
The point is, and remains, that we just don’t know what’s going to happen next year, much less in the years that come after that. We can handicap the races a bit, and talk about likelihoods and projections, but we’re really just saying that a team looks like they could win between 70 and 90 games, or 80 and 100, depending on what kind of unpredictable things break their way. The Cubs are probably more in the 70 to 90 range. We shouldn’t expect them to contend simply because they signed Edwin Jackson.
But we should note that Edwin Jackson makes them better, and this price for Edwin Jackson is still completely reasonable based on his established performance level. That the Cubs aren’t yet obvious contenders shouldn’t cause us to tell them to stop trying to improve. By bringing in Jackson and Carlos Villanueva today, while already adding Scott Baker and Scott Feldman, the Cubs have now acquired four interesting starting pitchers this winter. They’ve rebuilt their entire rotation, essentially, and have set themselves up to be able to trade Matt Garza — after he proves he’s healthy, anyway — without it creating a huge problem for their Major League team. They did the same drastic overhaul of their rotation that the Twins and Royals went after this winter, just they did it without giving up useful Major League outfielders or top outfield prospects in the process.
The Cubs are a big market team. They needed to add talent to make any kind of serious playoff run in the future. They might not be ready to make that run in 2013, but they’ve given themselves a better chance to be a surprise team next year, and now they’ve solidified their rotation beyond next year with a quality pitcher at a decent price.
For Jackson, after years of getting traded and changing teams every year, he now has some security. And he has that security with a team that has made some big strides this winter, improving both their present and their future at the same time.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.