After the Chicago Cubs missed out on Anibal Sanchez – tired of hearing that introductory clause yet? – or, more to the point, after the Chicago Cubs demonstrated a willingness to go after 28/29-year-old free agent starting pitchers who require a multiyear commitment, just about everyone had one name on their lips:
As I noted on Saturday, each of Bruce Levine, Paul Sullivan, and Gordon Wittenmyer suggested Jackson as the Cubs’ next target, albeit with words like “could,” “might,” and “may.” Given the superficial similarities between Sanchez and Jackson – they’re both free agent right-handed starters, they’ll both be 29 next season, they both are above-average starters, etc. – it’s understandable that his would be the first name that came up. Indeed, I do hope the Cubs pursue him.
But Sanchez and Jackson are as noteworthy for their differences as they are for their similarities.
Jackson’s Major League career ERA+ is 98. That means, for his career – which admittedly started at the tender age of 19 (yes, he was a super-prospect) – Jackson’s performance has been below average (ERA+ is adjusted for ballpark and league, and is scaled such that 100 is average). Even in his best years, from 2009 to 2012, his ERA+ is just 106. Above average, sure, but hardly more than what you’d want from, say, your number three or four starter. Heck, on a very good team, that might be what you want out of the guy at the back-end. Sanchez’s career ERA+ is 110.
And, while Sanchez just re-signed long-term with the second team he’s played for (the team to which he was traded by the only other team he’d ever played for), Jackson is seeking his seventh team in the last six years. Is that meaningful? Is it just a career fluke? Maybe. But it’s noteworthy.
The point of this exercise, of course, is not to diminish Jackson – he’s a fine pitcher, and we’ll get to that – but instead to point out that it is not as if Jackson is simply a perfect Sanchez replacement. The latter is six months younger, has been more productive recently, and looks poised to be a front of the rotation type. The latter is a solid, relatively consistent middle of the rotation type.
To his credit, Jackson’s xFIP (which judges a pitcher’s performance only on those things he can control, and normalizes for home runs (which tend to fluctuate wildly, year to year)), has been a very solid 3.71, 3.73, 3.79 each of the last three years, despite ERAs of 4.47, 3.79, and 4.03. In other words, he may have been a fair bit better than his ERA says he was. His walk rate has been decreasing over that stretch, and his strikeout rate has been a touch higher than his career mark. Those are good signs.
And that three year stretch comes on the heels of his 3.62 ERA, 125 ERA+ 2009 All-Star season. So, let’s not be totally unfair: he’s been a good pitcher the last four years.
Against that backdrop, do you want Jackson in your rotation? Of course. Most teams would.
The price, however, is the question. Jackson went into free agency last year expecting his first big pay day, saw the market dry up, and had to settle with a one-year, $11 million deal with the Nationals. After the 2012 season, when confronted with the choice of offering Jackson a qualifying one-year, $13.5 million contract so that they could secure a draft pick if he signed elsewhere, the Nationals elected not to do so. In other words, they feared his market might be such that he would accept the one-year, $13.5 million offer. That was either a huge mis-read of the market by the Nationals, or an indication of where Jackson’s price ceiling is going to fall.
The Padres have reportedly been negotiating extensively with Jackson on a three-year deal, believed to be in the $12 million per year range (though the seriousness of those discussions is subject to some debate). The Rangers, among other teams, are believed to be interested, and Jackson is believed to prefer a four or five-year deal.
You don’t need me to explain why the Cubs would be very interested at just three years and $36 million, assuming they have interest in Jackson at all. In other words, absent some physical or clubhouse issue to which we’re not privy, I can’t fathom Jackson is going to sign for so little. In that price range, I’d be very upset if the Cubs weren’t heavily involved – especially considering that the Padres, like the Cubs, are a rebuilding organization.
But should the Cubs up the ante to four or five years, and $13 or $14 million? You could certainly make the argument, given Jackson’s durability (he’s thrown more than 189 innings each of the last four years), that he’d be worth that investment. He’s not a difference-maker in the way Sanchez could have been, but he could be a part of the Cubs’ next competitive rotation. With Jackson in place through, say 2016, the Cubs would have a fair excuse to push to lock up Matt Garza for the same range, and they would then have Garza, Jackson, and Jeff Samardzija all in place for their likely next competitive window. A great team would need another starter (preferably an ace), but that’s not a bad pitching core.
I guess, at bottom, I’d like to see the Cubs involved here for all of the same reasons I wanted to see them involved in Sanchez, even if I don’t think Jackson is quite the pitcher that Sanchez is.