The $52 million question: How do Cubs fix Edwin Jackson?

The $52 million question: How do Cubs fix Edwin Jackson?
May 24, 2013, 8:15 pm
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CINCINNATI – The Cubs didn’t sign Edwin Jackson with the idea that they would flip him, instead viewing him as a long-term asset that would mature along with a gradually improving team.

There are 52 million reasons why a big-money pitcher with a 1-7 record and a 6.11 ERA isn’t in jeopardy of losing his spot in the rotation.

“We’re going to stick with him,” manager Dale Sveum said Friday at Great American Ball Park. “It’s a long season. There’s still another 20-plus starts there to fix this and get it going.”

But Sveum didn’t exactly take the heat off Jackson during his pregame media session either, subtly underlining the issues the Cubs may face across this four-year contract.

Later that night, some 260 miles to the north at Comerica Park, their No. 1 offseason target – Anibal Sanchez (5-4, 2.38 ERA) – took a no-hitter into the ninth inning for the Detroit Tigers and beat the Minnesota Twins 6-0.

Jackson has that kind of stuff, but it comes and goes. During Thursday’s 4-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates, he gave up all four runs in the first two innings before a storm hit PNC Park, forcing a rain delay that lasted almost two hours. The buzzword Sveum’s repeatedly used is lacking “conviction” on the mound.

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“When you come out, we need to be full velocity, full game mode, instead of gradually getting into that,” Sveum said. “Sometimes the game gets away from you because you’re not in complete game mode at the first pitch.

“It’s just that grind – I got to come out with complete conviction the first pitch of the game.”

Sveum’s not trying to go all “Friday Night Lights” here. There’s also the data-driven side. The staff’s scouting and video systems helped turn Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm into two of baseball’s hottest pitchers last summer.

“(Jackson) doesn’t really throw all the pitches to pitch to game plans,” Sveum said. “He doesn’t use curveballs or changeups. We got to get him to do that, so you can pitch to a game plan. If a guy can’t hit a changeup, we need to throw the guy changeups.

“(It’s having) the conviction in those pitches – even though they might not be your best pitches – (so you’re able) to pull them off and use them in all those situations.”

According to the online database at FanGraphs, Jackson has been throwing his changeup only 1.7 percent of the time this season, compared to 7.8 percent throughout his career. He has incorporated a cutter (9.1 percent) and essentially maintained his curveball (3.2 percent this season vs. 2.9 percent for his career).

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To his credit, Jackson has kept his cool. He hasn’t made excuses. He’s been the same guy every day, showing the low-key personality that’s made him popular in clubhouses all over the majors.

Jackson pitched in the 2008 World Series with the Tampa Bay Rays, represented the Tigers at the 2009 All-Star Game, threw a no-hitter for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2010 and won a ring with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011.

“If we all could start the game perfectly, we (would),” Jackson said. “It’s a game of adjustments. I wouldn’t say it’s a matter of necessarily starting the groove earlier. It would just be a matter of making better adjustments before you get hurt. I just have to do a better job of making adjustments before the damage is done.”

In Sveum’s words, the Cubs have watched Travis Wood (4-2, 2.24 ERA) emerge as “the best starter in baseball, pretty much.” The 26-year-old left-hander has made nine straight quality starts to begin the season, forcing everyone to view the Sean Marshall trade in a new light.

The Cincinnati Reds placed Marshall on the disabled list on Friday with a sprained left shoulder. On Saturday, Wood will face his old team at Great American Ball Park.

“A lot of times these things are just up to the individual,” Sveum said. “We can coach and do a lot of things we want, but it still comes down to the individual making these adjustments and doing things to get over a hump or get through a slump.”

Jackson – who will turn 30 in September – is the biggest free agent signed so far by the Theo Epstein administration.

“You got a commitment there,” Sveum said. “You got to stick with the commitment and coach him and teach. (But) it’s not like he’s a kid. He’s a veteran player. Sometimes, you just have to do it yourself.”