While there are still a number of free agents on the market, there are only three guys left who project to make a significant impact on a team’s win total next year – Prince Fielder, Roy Oswalt, and Edwin Jackson. Fielder is still available due to a strategy decision by his agent, who has dragged out the process to try and lure more teams into the bidding. Oswalt is reportedly being picky about where he’ll sign, and as an older pitcher coming off an injury plagued season, he fits the mold of guys who traditionally sign later in the off-season. Jackson remains on the market, however, simply due to a lack of interest in his services.
The Yankees were rumored to be a potential landing spot, but they traded for Michael Pineda and signed Hiroki Kuroda instead. The Red Sox seem to prefer Oswalt. The Reds gave their last remaining free agent dollars to Ryan Madson and Ryan Ludwick. Most of the other teams still shopping for starting pitching seem to be looking through the bargain bin, deciding between the likes of Rich Harden, Jeff Francis, or Zach Duke. So, today, Ken Rosenthal reported that Jackson may settle for a one-year deal with plans of hitting the market next winter and landing a bigger contract.
This plan has worked for others before – Adrian Beltre, Lance Berkman, Carl Pavano, Bobby Abreu, Randy Wolf, and Kyle Lohse are all guys who took one year deals in order to try and re-establish some value, then had a good season and cashed in with larger contracts the following winter. However, in just about every case, the player was coming off a lousy season compared with what they’d done in years prior. Beltre (8 HRs in 2009) and Berkman (14 HRs in 2010) were coming off seasons where their power disappeared. Bobby Abreu was headed into his age-35 season and his defense had degraded to the point where he needed to be moved to DH. Pavano posted a 5.10 ERA in the first healthy season he’d had in five years, while Wolf had just put up a 4.30 ERA while spending the first two-thirds of the season pitching in Petco Park. Lohse’s 4.62 ERA, supported by mediocre strikeout and ground ball rates, also wasn’t overly appealing.
These guys had reason to believe that they could perform better in the following season than they had in the just completed campaign, and by putting up better numbers, they could attract more attention during the following off-season. For each of them, there was legitimate potential for a bounce back season, and that expectation of improvement helped lead them to decide to take a one year contract.
Which brings back to Jackson – what, exactly, is he supposed to improve upon in 2012? He’s already shown that he’s durable, as only 16 pitchers in the sport have thrown more innings over the last three seasons. He posted a 3.79 ERA last year while pitching most of the year for the White Sox, who play in one of the most offense-friendly ballparks in the game, and his results matched his peripherals nearly to a tee. Should Jackson really expect to post significantly better numbers than 200 innings pitched with a 94 ERA- next year? It’s possible, I guess, but his 2011 results line up fairly well with what we’d expect from his skillset, and barring some unforeseen development of a new pitch, it’s pretty unlikely that Jackson’s going to drastically improve his numbers in 2012.
The market isn’t asking Edwin Jackson to prove that he’s healthy or that his numbers from a year ago weren’t a sign of worrisome decline – the market has just rejected Jackson as a quality starting pitcher entirely. This was a terrible crop of free agent starting pitchers, with three teams in need of upgrades deciding that they’d rather gut their farm systems in order to bring in an arm via trade rather than open their wallets to sign someone from this group. Jackson hit the market at exactly the right time – a thin group of other starters to choose from, headed into his age-28 season, coming off a pretty solid year overall. And still, the market has essentially told him “No thanks.”
Next winter, Cole Hamels, Zack Greinke, Matt Cain, Anibal Sanchez, Shaun Marcum, Colby Lewis, and Brandon McCarthy are all slated to hit the market, so Jackson won’t have the benefit of being a medium sized fish in a little pond. He’ll be a year older, and of course, there’s the ever-present chance that he’ll suffer an arm injury that could greatly harm his value. In order to be in a position to land a big contract in 12 months, he’d have to force teams to abandon the things they hold against him now – mainly, his perceived inconsistency.
But, if Jackson didn’t answer those questions in 2011, it’s tough to know exactly what he’d have to do in order to answer them in 2012. A reduction in his hit rate would probably help a bit, but he stranded about as many runners as we’d expect him to even if he didn’t have the high BABIP, so it’s unlikely that his run prevention numbers are going to drastically decline. He averaged 6.1 innings per start, and only the game’s truly elite hurlers do much better than that. And, despite the inconsistent tag, the standard deviation of his game scores was just 15.6, a mark that stacks up well against other good-not-great innings eaters.
If the market wasn’t willing to pay Jackson big money this winter, I just don’t know that it’s reasonable to expect that it will pay him big money next winter. Major League teams currently have ample evidence that suggests he’ll be a solid +3 win pitcher with few health concerns for the next several years, and yet, they have shown little interest in paying him as a guy who can perform at that level. Outside of just having an unexpected breakout performance, I’m not sure what else Jackson could do to convince teams of his value. He built a nice resume, hit the market at a young age, and everyone still passed.
If there’s a multi-year offer on the table, even something as small as $30 million over three years, Jackson should probably take it. It’s not close to what he’s likely to be worth over the next three seasons, but there’s little evidence that suggests Major League teams are ever going to warm up to him. They’ve got three years of data that shows he’s a quality arm – is adding a fourth really going to make much of a difference?
Someone’s going to get a steal with Edwin Jackson, and given what he’s likely to do for the price he’s going to cost, the signing team should probably want to lock him in at these rates for the next few years. From Jackson’s perspective, he’s just been given a thorough rejection in his efforts to land a long term contract in a market where he should have been a pretty well sought after commodity, so he shouldn’t expect that posting another 200 inning season with a decent ERA will land him a raise next winter.
I just don’t see how settling for a one year deal is in anyone’s best interests. Jackson should take as much guaranteed cash as he can get, and the teams that have some money left in the budget should be happy to take him at bargain rates for the next three or four years.