(MCT) — CHICAGO — Edwin Jackson gambled, and he won. The question for the Cubs is whether he and Carlos Villanueva will win too much next season?
I wouldn’t worry about it if I was President Theo Epstein or general manager Jed Hoyer. They still should be sitting pretty in the 2014 draft, even with a surprisingly deep starting rotation entering next season.
Jackson and Villanueva, both 29-year-old right-handers, agreed to contracts with the Cubs on Thursday, getting the biggest deals of any free-agent pitchers since Epstein essentially replaced Jim Hendry. Jackson gets a reported $42 million for four years; Villanueva $10 million for two years.
Neither of them got no-trade clauses. That gives them the same lack of protection as Scott Baker and Scott Feldman, who were signed as free agents in November, and holdovers Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood.
Jackson, the former White Sox import who helped the Nationals win in 2012, is going to his eighth team. But he has become a much better pitcher than the frequency of his moves would suggest.
In fact, since he was traded to the Sox at the deadline in 2010, he essentially has matched the regular-season performance of Anibal Sanchez, who just landed a five-year, $80-million deal with the Tigers after rejecting the Cubs.
You could say this is damning with faint praise, as Sanchez is 48-51 with a 3.75 career earned-run average, but you have to say Jackson is, at the least, an unusually dependable and reasonably average pitcher. Does that make him worth $13 million per year for four years? In this escalating market, with Zack Greinke landing a deal for $147 million, it does.
Jackson’s slider is about as good of a put-away pitch as anything Sanchez has, and he throws harder — a lot harder. According to the PitchFX information at Fangraphs.com, Jackson hit 100 on a radar gun as recently as 2010 and last year peaked at 97.6 mph with an average of 93.4 on his fastball (fourth best in the National League among qualifiers, behind Samardzija, Jordan Zimmermann and Edinson Volquez).
Jackson lacks pitchability and killer instinct. But he’s more respected in the game than you might think, as many still remember he got to the big leagues at 19 and marvel at his professionalism amid such a chaotic career. He was 22 when he first was traded, and he would be traded four more times before reaching free agency.
He signed a one-year, $11-million deal with the Nats rather than take multi-year offers from the Pirates and Orioles, and now has parlayed that into $53 million over five years. Nice move.
When it was known that the Cubs were pursuing him, I emailed an executive who knows him well.
“Like him,” he said. “Been on some good teams. Athletic. Competes well.”
As for his improvement the last two years, he wrote: “Command (is) better now that he has learned how to harness his fastball. Slider always (his) out pitch. Solid No. 3 (or) 4 starter.”
Villanueva, who moved between the bullpen and the rotation with the Brewers and Blue Jays, offers the potential to become a No. 4 or 5 starter on a good team. He wants to start and is expected to get a chance, as will the Cubs’ other six starters.
The one cloud is that Epstein pretty much promised Feldman he would be used as a starter and now he may have to earn his spot. But teams rarely find themselves with too many starters when they begin playing games.
Baker, who had some excellent years for the Twins, missed 2012 after Tommy John surgery and might not be ready before Opening Day. Garza seems likely to be traded at midseason, if not before, and last year’s midseason purge of Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm shows Epstein and Hoyer won’t be shy about dealing for younger talent.
Don’t look for the four free agent starters to turn the Cubs into an instant contender. They still are looking to 2015 and beyond, although they could drop a few spots in the 2014 draft if Jackson & Co. make them a 71-win team rather than the 61-win mess from last season.
Given how well Dempster and Maholm pitched before they were traded, a 10-win improvement might seem unlikely. Dempster’s WAR averaged 3.2 over the last five seasons. But if Baker regains his pre-surgery form, he could match that. And the Cubs’ big improvement should come at the bottom of the rotation.
Some combination of Villanueva, Feldman and Wood should get innings that went to the likes of Chris Volstad, Justin Germano, Brooks Raley and Chris Rusin. Those guys had a -4.8 WAR in their 45 starts. By eliminating that deficit, the Cubs may have made themselves a 70-win team. They’re moving forward, albeit with baby steps.