There is no way to sugarcoat Edwin Jackson’s disastrous first season with the Chicago Cubs. Of 80 qualifying starters in major league baseball last year, Jackson had both the 78th highest ERA, 4.98, and WHIP, 1.46. No pitcher lost more games than his 18, against just eight wins. Jackson’s disastrous season only cost the Cubs $19 million in the first year of a 4-year, $52 million contract.
Yet, with the information available to management at the time, it was completely reasonable to sign Jackson to a lucrative deal. Further, there is ample time left on the deal, three years, for the Cubs to still be rewarded.
In 2012, the Cubs finished with a 61-91 record and used the fourth most starting pitchers in the National League, fourteen. During that offseason, the Cubs also signed veteran pitchers Scott Feldman and Scott Baker to one year deals with the objective of trading them during the season for young assets, a practice they had started the previous season when they dealt veterans Ryan Dempter, Paul Maholm and others to buttress a farm system that was sorely lacking in star power and depth. Matt Garza was entering the final year of his contract and was almost certain to be traded during the season as well.
Travis Wood spent the 2012 season splitting time between the minor leagues and Cubs, and RHP Jeff Samardzija’s season was cut short in September when he reached a pre-determined innings limit in his first season as a starting pitcher.
As it turned out, Baker suffered an elbow injury in spring training that sidelined him until September and ruined his trade value, but Feldman and Garza were dealt during the 2013 campaign. Wood flourished and made the All-Star game, and Samardzija had a decent season wire to wire. But signing Edwin Jackson, who had made 30 plus starts each year since becoming a full-time starting pitcher in 2007 with the Tampa Bay Rays, brought stability to a staff that was almost certain to face significant turnover.
Jackson, while his production was subpar, did prove durable yet again, making 31 starts. Whether fair or not, player acquisitions are largely judged prospectively, rarely on the body of work of the player at the time of the deal.
However, the signing of Jackson was not comparable to former General Manager Jim Hendry’s decision to sign OF Milton Bradley prior to the 2009 season. Bradley’s history of insubordination and off-the-field problems was well-documented when Hendry inked him to a 3-year, $30 million contract. Bradley, predictably, spent the 2009 season and 2010 offseason causing a soap opera of conflicts within the clubhouse. None of Bradley’s antics was unforeseeable. The Cubs had to make a bad trade with the Seattle Mariners at season’s end to extricate themselves from Bradley’s contact. This was a classic case of an acquisition that was bad at the time it was made only being validated as worse once the player took the field or, in Bradley’s case, opened his mouth.
Nothing about Edwin Jackson’s body of work the four season’s prior to his signing with the Cubs could have portended his 2013 season. In fact, Jackson was an above-average pitcher in the four seasons prior to joining the Cubs.
Below we chart the average ERA among starting pitchers across both the National and American Leagues versus Jackson’s from 2009 and 2012:
2009: Average ERA: 4.45 Edwin Jackson’s ERA: 3.62
2010: Average ERA: 4.15 Edwin Jackson’s ERA: 4.47
2011: Average ERA: 4.06 Edwin Jackson’s ERA: 3.79
2012: Average ERA: 4.19 Edwin Jackson’s ERA: 4.03
Jackson’s ERA was above average in three of the four seasons prior to signing with the Cubs and twice appreciably better than the average.
Below we chart the average WHIP among qualifying starters compared to Jackson’s between 2009 and 2012.
2009: Average WHIP: 1.39 Edwin Jackson’s WHIP: 1.262
2010: Average WHIP: 1.34 Edwin Jackson’s WHIP: 1.39
2011: Average WHIP: 1.32 Edwin Jackson’s WHIP: 1.44
2012: Average WHIP: 1.32 Edwin Jackson’s WHIP: 1.29
Jackson’s WHIP was better than average in two of the four years prior to being signed by the Cubs and just above the average in two others. He also tallied a record of four games above .500 during those four seasons.
Thus, while the Jackson signing looks horrid based on his first season with the Cubs, Cubs’ brass simply cannot be faulted for making the move based on the data available to the team and the expected turnover and uncertainty surrounding their pitching staff entering 2013.
Four year deals are an eternity in baseball, and Jackson has ample time to prove Cubs’ management prescient for signing him. One of the moves for which Cubs’ president of baseball operations Theo Epstein was panned most vociferously during his time as Boston Red Sox General Manager was the free agent signing of RHP John Lackey to a 5-year, $82.5 million contract prior to the 2010 season. In eight seasons prior to signing with the Red Sox, Lackey compiled a 102-71 record with the Los Angeles Angels along with a 3.81 ERA and 1.306 WHP.
During the 2011 offseason, Lackey had surgery to repair a torn elbow ligament, and he missed the entire 2012 season. In spite of the signing being completely defensible based on Lackey’s age, 31, and durability (five seasons of 30-plus starts), Epstein was eviscerated for Lackey’s injury and substandard performance for Boston in 2010 and 2011 prior to the injury. Last season, Lackey bounced back for Boston with a 3.52 ERA and an exceptional 1.157 WHIP and was the winning pitcher for the Red Sox in their World Series clinching game.
We are not suggesting that Edwin Jackson will redeem himself in like fashion, only that it is grossly premature to characterize his signing as a complete failure or even a failure at all. Whether fair or not, Cubs’ management will be judged not on the data that merited the signing of Jackson but on the performance that followed it. Remember, Michael Corleone was just a droopy naïve young man in the early chapters of The Godfather, a ruthless Don in the later ones. We should read the entire book on Edwin Jackson before submitting our reviews.
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