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Insider

Edwin Jackson fits the Cubs' strategy

12/21/2012

Given the current price of starting pitching in free agency, the annual salary of $11 million (excluding the $8 million he'll receive as a signing bonus) that Edwin Jackson got from the Chicago Cubs is reasonable, especially because he probably carries relatively little risk of either a significant dip in performance or of missing a significant chunk of time.

Jackson, 29, threw 183 innings in 2008 and has exceeded that total in each of the four seasons since, and has made 31 or more starts in all six seasons since he became a major league starter. He just posted the highest strikeout rate and second-lowest walk rate of his career, numbers he could pretty easily repeat, given his stuff and previous performance. He probably will never turn into the No. 1 or 2 starter that his raw stuff would indicate, but a pitcher who is worth roughly three wins above replacement every season with only minimal deviations from that number is still a valuable asset.

Signing a top free agent to a long-term deal isn't usually a great strategy for a 90-plus loss team, but there's merit to the Cubs' move here. Jackson's presence on the roster gives them more flexibility to potentially trade a starter, if not two, during the 2013 season.

Matt Garza likely would be an ex-Cub by now if he'd finished the 2012 season healthy, and he could move as early as spring training if he looks like his old self. If Scott Baker or Scott Feldman throw well in the first half of 2013, they would be ideal trade bait before the July 31 deadline, which is the best argument for signing them in the first place -- but now doing so won't leave the team with a skeleton crew rotation behind Jeff Samardzija in the final two months of the season.

Jackson also gives the Cubs a third starter for their 2014 rotation after Samardzija and Travis Wood, particularly critical because the Cubs didn't have a solid starting-pitching prospect above short-season ball this year; even an optimistic forecast on Pierce Johnson, the top college pitcher the Cubs drafted in 2012, wouldn't have him in the majors until mid-2014.

With next winter's free-agent market looking as if it'll be light on starting pitchers, signing Jackson now, even if it's for a year longer than I'd want to go on a pitcher of his caliber, makes some sense as insurance against entering the 2014 season with filler in three rotation spots. And if you must go four years, Jackson's history of durability and consistent performance should make you less queasy about it than you'd be with Kyle Lohse or Anibal Sanchez.

I'm more or less dismissing the possibility that Jackson improves from what he has been the past four years, but I suppose it's not impossible. He does have the big fastball and can hold that velocity deep into games, often hitting 97 mph to 98 mph on a few pitches toward the end of an outing, but his command, especially up in the zone, has always left a little to be desired and made him prone to hard contact, including home runs.

He misses bats with his slider, but gets beaten on his fastball too often to be more than a mid-rotation guy who eats a lot of innings, and I've long held that teams buy into him because they see the velocity and figure he can be fixed. The Cubs' deal with him pays him like he'll be as good as he's been, but no better; if there is another level for Jackson, that's potential upside for the Cubs. I just don't expect it, given how long he's been the pitcher we know him to be.

The Cubs also picked up swingman Carlos Villanueva on a pretty cheap two-year deal, paying him $10 million total for a term that probably will see him working both in the rotation and out of the bullpen. He adds to the starting pitching depth, which could make trading Garza and one of Baker or Feldman easier this season, but with the rotation full at the moment, Villanueva probably will head for the bullpen, an area of weakness for the 2012 team that's looking better now with this deal and with the signing of Kyuji Fujikawa.

The Cubs' offseason as a whole hasn't done anything to interfere with the rebuilding program in place; no one's been blocked, and they haven't lost any draft picks or prospects. They're focusing on cheap, short-term deals with players who have a lot of potential to produce surplus value, and the one exception, Jackson, was the safest remaining bet on the starting pitching market. It's the best path for a team that has money but is restricted by the new CBA from putting it into amateur talent acquisition.