A wandering pitcher he, a thing of shreds and patches. - Patrick McDermott
There is an odd class of major-league pitchers: good enough to pitch, but somehow never good enough to keep. Edwin Jackson, the starting counterpart to Octavio Dotel, has been one of those vagabond hurlers, but this winter may finally see him find a long-term home.
I'm an incredibly sympathetic person. If I see someone crying, in a movie or real life, I tear up. I can't watch Sarah McLahlan empower us to save all of the puppies in the ASPCA commercial, and if I see a homeless person, I typically toss him my spare change. My ex always said I was a deep-feeler, someone easily concerned with the plight of others, whether it was saving the whales or feeding starving orphans.
Sometimes I feel bad for Edwin Jackson, but not today.
I felt bad for him on December 8, 2009, when he was technically traded twice in the same day. I mean, that can't be fun, can it? Jackson has played for seven different teams since 2005 (Dodgers, Rays, Tigers, Diamondbacks, White Sox, Cardinals, and Nationals), which is the most of any current starter and remarkable considering he's only 29 years old. As someone who was the new kid several times growing up, I certainly know the anxiety that comes with continually starting over, so I'm sympathetic.
Many people felt bad for Jackson this October, when he kept hanging his fastball over the middle of the plate against the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 3 of the NLDS. Jackson gave up four earned runs in the first two innings, including a home run to Pete Kozma, who is not a power hitter, but a little twerp who strikes out a lot and would never hit a home run unless supplied the perfect pitch -- and Jackson gave it to him.
Others might feel bad for Jackson as he finishes yet another season unsure what city he will next call home. It's unlikely to be Washington, since the Nationals didn't stake the $13.3 million for a qualifying option. But that's fine. This is one the one case where I don't feel so bad for Edwin.
This is almost exactly how Jackson planned it. At the crossroads of stability and risk last season, he chose to let it ride and take a gamble on a one-year contract for $11 million even though for the first time in his career, someone had offered him a three-year contract. The Pirates had offered Jackson a three-year, $27 million dollar payday; the years of living as a gypsy pitcher bouncing from mound to mound could finally end if he wanted them to. Instead of the sure thing, he gambled on the one-year deal. On the surface it seems crazy that he'd give up the sure thing in favor of a shorter contract, but now he's a free agent in a weak class of starters, which should mean he'll be more handsomely compensated in dollars and years than he would have been last season.
The only thing that didn't go as planned is that the new offer won't be coming from the Nationals as Jackson had hoped. The Nationals might have opted to keep him given how well he pitched in the first half, but by September he was struggling, and posted a 6.54 ERA in the final month of the season. The Nationals were fortunate to have him as an innings-eater after they shut down Stephen Strasburg, but his shaky performance put him at the bottom of the rotation, as measured by ERA, by the end of the season.
I know what you're thinking already. You're saying to yourself, "... but Edwin Jackson isn't that good," to which I'll say he's not that bad, either. I'm uncertain when it became fashionable to talk about Jackson as though he were the worst pitcher in the league with command akin to Rick Ankiel's, but it's a rapidly spreading epidemic that doesn't make a lot of sense. The tales of Jackson's suckability are greatly exaggerated -- he's certainly no ace, but he's better than league average and has a lot to offer any team in need of a starter.
Jackson will never be a #1 pitcher, though he occasionally shows flashes of brilliance. He'll have days like April 7, 2011, when he struck out 13 batters while pitching in snow flurries in the White Sox home opener, and he could surprise everyone with another 149-pitch no-hitter, but those performances certainly aren't the norm. What Jackson gives you is a 95-mph fastball and 87 slider, and while he'll never have the command of an elite pitcher, he fools a lot of hitters into swinging over the latter. While Jackson's just a bit better than league average based on statistics, he has several (please don't judge me for uttering this word) "intangibles" that set him apart on the free agent market.
In 10 seasons in the league, Jackson has only been on the disabled list once (2004 for a right forearm strain). He's been day-to-day just three times for minor injuries, but that's it. While some pitchers make multiple trips in a season, Jackson has been a healthy and reliable starter that can throw a lot of innings. Just as there's a market for aces, there's also a market for LAIMs (League Average Inning Munchers) as well, and few fit that role better than Jackson, who has pitched at least 150 innings in every full season in the majors, with a career-high 214 innings in 2009. Marry his fastball, health, and longevity to the fact that he's a veteran who has been to the playoffs three times and has won a World Series, and it's pretty easy to see why a market would exist for Jackson in any winter, but this season he's extra-marketable given the weak competition.
Jackson won't make the Hall of Fame, and in his 11th season it's unlikely he morphs into a pitch with pinpoint command, but every roster needs at least five (or six, but don't get me started on that) starters, so there's room for pitchers like Jackson. Simple math: the majors will have at least 150 starters at any given time, and this year Jackson ranked 58th by ERA (his pre-September ERA of 3.53 would have been 31st, falling between James Shields and Scott Diamond). He posted the best WHIP of his career (1.22), and he struck out 21.3 percent of batters he faced, well above the league average (17.6 percent). Despite the strikeouts, Jackson is a groundball pitcher who does better with a strong defense behind him, especially since he struggles from the stretch.
In short, while Jackson won't receive a lot of accolades, he certainly has the ability to be a solid number three or four starter on any roster. I don't understand the perception that free agent pitchers have to be an ace to find a home. We don't expect every shortstop to be Cal Ripken and we realize not every left fielder will hit like Carl Yastrzemski, yet when it comes to pitchers, we tend to dismiss anyone who doesn't pitch as well as Justin Verlander. Certainly every team would love a rotation full of Cy Youngs, but that's not reality.
The best pitchers that could have been free agents this season never hit the market. Cole Hamels, Matt Cain, Jake Peavy, and James Shield all stayed with their respective teams, making Zack Greinke the de facto ace on the market. Jackson is third on the list, separated from Greinke by Kyle Lohse, a righty with even less command and an injury list so long he easily hits his deductible every season. Other starters in the top ten include Hiroki Kuroda, Brandon McCarthy, Anibal Sanchez, Ryan Dempster, and Shaun Marcum, but none of them have quite the pedigree of Jackson, so his reward for bouncing around the league like a pinball seems imminent.
Jon Heyman is predicting that Jackson could sign a four-year, $55 million deal, which may seem extravagant on the surface, but the important thing to remember about player contracts is that the market determines the asking price more than a pitcher's ability, especially in a shallow market.
There's no reason to feel sorry for Edwin today, but given what he brings to the rotation, the Nationals shouldn't be so eager to help him pack his bags, either. Their loss is another team's gain; he's going to come out on top. There are several teams that could be interested, especially since he has experience playing in both leagues, and a long-term deal seems realistic given the market. I'll bottle my sympathies for Jackson and hope they stay on the shelf for another four-years ... otherwise I'll feel extra-sympathetic if his eighth team flips him to team number nine by the trade deadline.