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Nationals Sign Jackson, But to What End?

Per Jon Heyman of CBS Sports, 28-year-old right-hander Edwin Jackson and the Washington Nationals have reached an agreement on a one-year deal worth somewhere in the $8-12 million range. Pending a physical, Jackson joins a rotation that includes Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, and recent acquisition (in a trade with Oakland) Gio Gonzalez.

What is there to say about Jackson, specifically, that FanGraphs hasn’t said already? The market for him has been — and continued this offseason to be — underwhelming relative to his production (link). It’s likely to continue to be underwhelming (link). He (Jackson) has become a journeymen despite possessing youth, physical tools, and an increasingly robust resume (link).

For three consecutive years now, Jackson has been worth between 3.5 and 4.0 WAR — which suggests that, provided he’s healthy, another season in the 3.5-4.0 WAR range wouldn’t be shocking. It also suggests that, even were a team to have given him $15 million, that would still probably have been on the low-end of fair market value.

The question that’s more interesting for the time being is this one: what, precisely, are the Nats hoping to accomplish with the Jackson deal?

Let’s start first of all by establishing this: the addition of Jackson — and subtraction, presumably, of either John Lannan or Chien-Ming Wang — doesn’t make the Nats insta-contenders. Per a too-early standings projection conducted last week by the Replacement Level Yankees blog (using Marcels as an input), the Nats finished with 83 wins; the Phillies and Braves, with 90 and 89, respectively. The most recent iteration of OLIVER standings projects the Nats to finish with 81 wins — a full 10 games behind the would-be first-place Braves.

Even in a best-case scenario, Jackson only adds three wins that weren’t there previously. That narrows the gap, obviously — and at least allows for the possibility that randomness could push the Nats into contention leading up to the trade deadline — but it does not the Nationals a playoff contender make.

It’s possible that the Jackson signing represents an attempt on the part of Washington simply to not be mediocre. Or to be less mediocre. That’s a possible, if entirely uninspiring, explanation for the deal — because there’s value in being “just fine.” Furthermore, it’s possible that the Nationals see value in Jackson as a player either to flip for a decent prospect at the deadline, or from whom to gain a compensation pick in the 2013 draft after Jackson becomes a Type B free agent when the season is over.

For the Nationals to become actual contenders, though, at least one of the following three names will have to appear in fewer of manager Davey Johnson‘s lineups than is projected: Roger Bernadina, Ian Desmond, and Adam LaRoche.

It’s unlikely that any of those is an average major leaguer. Even when healthy — and he wasn’t that in 2011 — LaRoche hasn’t really had the bat to carry first base in a full-time capacity. Despite tools that help his fantasy value, Desmond’s defensive shortcomings and poor approach at the plate suggest that’s he best suited for a utility role. And as for Bernadina — he’s fine, but not as a starter.

Really, the Nats’ intentions will only become clear when it becomes apparent how they plan to address the shortcomings at center field, shortstop, and first base. Those positions are set to produce something in the vicinity of four wins right now. Could the GM Mike Rizzo extract, say, three more wins out of those three spots — via trade, via whatever — then the Nationals would be well-suited to contend in 2012. If not, then the motivation for signing Jackson to a one-year deal is less eventful, more shrewd.