Why the Cubs went all-in with Edwin Jackson

Why the Cubs went all-in with Edwin Jackson

February 26, 2013, 5:00 pm
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Why wait for next year? Why wait for three years from now?
—Dioner Navarro

MESA, Ariz. – Edwin Jackson has pitched for Joe Maddon, Jim Leyland, Ozzie Guillen, Tony La Russa and Davey Johnson.

Jackson has been around Cy Young winners: David Price, Justin Verlander, Jake Peavy and Chris Carpenter. He has played with MVPs like Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols. He has seen the next generation of stars in Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg.

That’s part of the reason why manager Dale Sveum and general manager Jed Hoyer traveled in December to meet with Jackson in Newport Beach, Calif., at the same time team president Theo Epstein and chairman Tom Ricketts were pitching Anibal Sanchez in Miami.

Their $52 million investment debuted in a Cubs uniform on Tuesday, throwing two scoreless innings during a 4-2 win over the Colorado Rockies in front of 4,021 fans at HoHoKam Stadium.

Before jumping in, club officials contacted ex-teammates and coaches to find out why Jackson had been traded six times, a perception that doesn’t bother the laid-back military brat who only knows life on the go.

“I know I’ve been moving around, but I don’t have a bad rap sheet,” Jackson said. “It’s not because I’ve been a nuisance in the clubhouse. It’s not because of any altercations or any off-the-field incidents. Half the time I’ve been moving, it’s been to a team that’s competing to get further.”

The hope at Clark and Addison is that the Cubs will be legitimate contenders during the final two seasons of Jackson’s four-year deal.

No one predicted the Cubs would go to five years, $77.5 million this winter before Sanchez took $80 million from the Detroit Tigers. But when the Cubs looked out at their 2014 rotation, they saw Jeff Samardzija and fill in the blank.

[MORE: Samardzija could ride momentum into Opening Day start]

Even with the rotation upgrades, there are still questions.

Sveum said there’s an “above-average chance” Garza will resume throwing on Thursday as he recovers from a lat muscle strain. Two Tommy John cases – Scott Baker and Arodys Vizcaino – took respective steps forward by throwing 25 pitches in live batting practice and a side session.

[RELATED: State of the Cubs' rotation]

That’s part of the reason why the Cubs signed Jackson to the biggest free-agent deal in the Epstein administration so far.

“You can’t sit and wait for there to be a perfect opportunity to acquire a pitcher or wait until right when you’re ready to win the World Series and go add 40, 60 percent of your rotation,” Epstein said. “We weren’t eager to make a significant investment in a player who we would have to sign for a good portion of their mid-30s or who had a significant injury history or hadn’t been reliable in the past.

“When a 29-year-old with a very consistent track record of being a solid, effective, 200-inning-a-year, mid-rotation starter emerges – and is available at what was relatively speaking a reasonable cost – we felt like it made a lot of sense.

“You make that type of move knowing what’s in your system, knowing what future free-agent classes look like, knowing what your future roster and payroll situation is. And if it makes sense – not only for 2013 but for all four years of the deal – then you sort of hold your breath and move forward.

“I say hold your breath only because free-agent pitching is an inherently risky proposition. And in that risky pool, Edwin Jackson was – knock on wood – about as safe a bet as you can find.”    

In the end, the Cubs viewed the constant movement as a byproduct of Boras Corp. policy – Jackson left the super-agent last year – and the meter running for someone who made his big-league debut on his 20th birthday.

“He was always put in a position where he didn’t sign the long-term contract,” Sveum said, “so he was basically trade bait all those times. (That’s) just part of the business.”

Jackson said the timing and fit didn’t work in any extensions talks with teams in the past.

Born in West Germany, Jackson was forced to learn how to make new friends as his family moved around with his father Edwin Sr., a retired U.S. Army sergeant first class.

“He is a great dude,” Samardzija said. “He’s one of those guys – like Garza and a couple other dudes – that really don’t put too much into a contract (or) what other expectations are. (You) go out and get your work in. That’s definitely Edwin to the max.”

Jackson is more of a lead-by-example type, not a vocal presence. He hasn’t hung around his locker much and glides through the clubhouse with headphones over his ears.

“I’m not trying to come in and take over any ship,” he said.

Two years ago, Carlos Pena tried to spread all those positive vibes from the worst-to-first Tampa Bay Rays. That 2011 season saw general manager Jim Hendry get fired while the media waited for manager Mike Quade to get whacked.    

[MORE: Dontrelle Willis knocked out with a shoulder injury]

There’s no magic formula, but the Cubs are hoping that players who’ve been through rebuilding jobs and experienced winning cultures can make a difference.

As Sveum said of Jackson: “He breeds what we’re trying to do here: Bring character in and great people and, obviously, guys that can produce.”

Dioner Navarro caught Jackson on the 2007 Rays team that lost 96 games. Navarro caught Jackson on the 2008 Rays team that won 97 games and made it to the World Series. They’re reunited on a team that has almost no outside expectations for 2013.

“We just got tired of being the pushovers,” Navarro said. “We just got tired of (how) everybody wanted to play the Rays. We said: ‘Screw this, we are capable of competing with these guys. Why not? We can do it.’ We put our mindset on one goal.

“That’s how I think we can get through this year. Why wait for next year? Why wait for three years from now?”

Jackson has gone from being a win-now rental to a long-term rebuilding piece. He won a World Series ring with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011 and helped the Washington Nationals win 98 games last season.

[RELATED: Before Soler/Baez, Darnell McDonald was the next big thing]

Jackson has a career 70-71 record and 4.40 ERA, but that’s how the price of pitching has exploded. The Cubs are betting that there’s more in there.

“It definitely feels good when you know that you have the chance to have some stability on a team,” Jackson said. “But at the same time, you can’t get too complacent to where you let it get you too relaxed. You still have to have some edge about you when you take the field.”