Can Cubs salvage the Edwin Jackson contract?

Can Cubs salvage the Edwin Jackson contract?
April 7, 2014, 5:15 pm
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The Cubs crossed their fingers and hoped Edwin Jackson would become part of The Core. But so many things at Clark and Addison don’t go according to The Plan. 

The City Hall negotiations, the rooftop turf battles and a highly leveraged partnership with Sam Zell’s Tribune Co. are pushing the Ricketts family toward selling minority ownership shares to help finance the Wrigley Field renovation. 

Fox? WGN? Comcast/NBCUniversal? There are no slam-dunk decisions in the 2020 media-rights play. The Wrigleyville West development faded from the Cubs Park blueprints in Arizona. Dale Sveum became the next Terry Francona, only it was the 2000 version, fired after a last-place finish with the Philadelphia Phillies.

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Theo Epstein’s front office sold Jackson’s four-year, $52 million contract as a deal that made sense, because he’s durable and young enough to be there when the Cubs are ready to contend. Maybe a one-time All-Star with a World Series ring and a no-hitter on his resume could even take his game to a new level. 

The Cubs wrote it off as the price of pitching and the cost of covering a big hole in the organization – and then watched Jackson lead the majors with 18 losses. 

It’s not what they envisioned in December 2012, when Epstein and chairman Tom Ricketts met with Anibal Sanchez in Miami and got used for leverage against the Detroit Tigers, the same day Sveum and general manager Jed Hoyer made a sales pitch to Jackson’s camp in Southern California.

The Jackson reboot continues Tuesday night at Wrigley Field against the Pittsburgh Pirates (4-2). Epstein heard it from the crowd during an event for season-ticket holders last November, essentially admitted the mistake and had to explain what he meant during the media session afterward.

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“We’ll be the first ones to tell you: We’re not perfect,” Epstein said. “Given the situation, I think we could have been more patient. We certainly could have been more in line with the plan. That said, when there’s no pitching, you have to find pitching. Free agency can be a toss of the coin. 

“We were really close to landing the two youngest, potentially very productive starting pitchers in free agency. One happened to have a year where he was third in the league in (ERA) and one happened to go out and have the worst year of his career. But we believe there’s a lot better ahead for Edwin Jackson.” 

Just as the franchise has pushed back the competitive timeline – remember when 2015 was supposed to be a breakthrough year? – the Cubs also seem to have lowered their expectations for Jackson.

“He stayed healthy again the entire season,” Epstein said. “He’s still only 30 years old. His underlying performance was a lot better than that stat line you read out there on the scoreboard. And he never quit. Certainly, he’s somebody that can impact us and fill a rotation spot for us going forward. 

“I was just being self-critical. Anytime that you make an investment that doesn’t immediately pay off – especially when you’re in a situation where you don’t have tremendous freedom to make a variety of significant investments – you should be hard on yourself. 

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“It’s important for us to remember the plan that’s in place and to stay focused on building that core. But if there’s an opportunity to acquire an asset at a fair price, we also have to be aggressive and pick our spots.”

Jackson’s 4.98 ERA last season did involve some bad luck. He didn’t seem overwhelmed by the big contract and the remaining balance is a relatively reasonable – potentially movable – three years and $33 million. 

The Cubs have figured out a way to coach ‘em up and fix broken pitchers – the rotation has been a bright spot in a 2-4 start. It doesn’t always work out (see Chris Volstad and Scott Baker). But you’ve seen the development of Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood and the trade-deadline marketing for Ryan Dempster, Paul Maholm, Scott Feldman and Matt Garza.  

Could Jackson be the next comeback player here?

“We all can,” Jackson said. “We have a staff of pitchers where anyone at any particular time can go out and wow people. It’s just a matter of who it’s going to be that day. But we feel confident that we can run five guys out there and have a chance to win every day. That’s what it’s all about.”

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That didn’t really answer the question, but it did underline how Jackson handled a bad season. He didn’t pick fights with the media or duck reporters or blame his teammates. He’s still a good clubhouse guy who’s been around winning teams from Tampa Bay to St. Louis to Washington. He made sure to be the same guy every day.

“I don’t see Edwin changing one way or the other,” manager Rick Renteria said. “He tries to keep an even-keeled approach. He’s been around the game a long time. This is a guy that’s not new to the major leagues. He’s had some success at the big-league level and we’re just looking for him to hopefully rebound and try to chip away and keep him going in a positive direction.”

In his season debut against the Pirates last week, Jackson pitched into the sixth inning of a game the Cubs would lose 4-3 in the 16th at PNC Park. He gave up two runs, one earned, on two hits. He walked four, hit another batter and got five strikeouts.

“There are plenty of guys that had long-term contracts and their first year didn’t live up to expectations and they ended up having really good runs with that team,” Hoyer said. “I always think of Carlos Beltran with the Mets. He struggled his first year and it ended up being a great contract. It’s way too early to tell. When you sign a four-year contract, you want to get four years of information. 

“(Jackson) had his ups and downs the other night, but I certainly thought that he settled in well and threw well and hopefully that will get him off to a good start.” 

If not, well, The Plan doesn’t leave much room for error right now, the ability to swing big and miss in free agency. And the Cubs have already pushed back their ETA for contention. Core player or not, the business/baseball plans need to get something out of Jackson.