May 6, 2013
During the final week of September in 2012, the Chicago Cubs lost 5 of 6 to NL West Division opponents, using a starting pitching rotation of Chris Rusin, Jason Berken, Chris Volstad, Travis Wood, and Justin Germano. If you just threw up a little bit in your mouth, and you need to take a minute to rinse and pop in a mint, I completely understand. Rusin, Berken and Germano are back in AAA to begin 2013, with only Rusin remaining in the Cubs system. Volstad is pitching for the Rockies with a robust 8.53 ERA this season. The only one to climb out of that September sink hole was former Reds top prospect, Travis Wood, who one could argue has been the best starter in the 2013 Cubs rotation.
So when the question keeps getting repeated – “Why did the Cubs spend free agent dollars on starting pitchers Edwin Jackson, Scott Feldman, and Carlos Villanueva?” – the answer is probably “September of 2012.” Of course, the question isn’t quite that simple. The deeper question asks, why would the Cubs spend roughly $70 million on starting pitchers for a 2013 season in which they have little hope to compete? The answer remains, no matter what phase of a franchise rebuild the Cubs are in, they could not plan to put a product on the field with a starting rotation of arms like Rusin, Berken, Volstad, Wood, and Germano. Say what you will about the Cubs (you have over a century of material to work with), but the one thing you have to give them: They are not the Marlins.
But looking closer at these specific free agent signings, there are many contract factors that help these deals make sense for the Cubs: Feldman is a one-year flyer at $6 million, which opens up all kinds of second-half options in 2013, and Villanueva’s deal equates to $10 million for two years for a pitcher whose stock has been steadily rising for three seasons. The much heavier Jackson deal is the one most often criticized, at 4 years for $52 million, but I honestly think it’s a fair price for the value the Cubs were seeking from the starting pitching market (not easy to say right now, because EJax has been terrible so far in 2013). Edwin Jackson’s market value was set around $11 million per year, which matches his Cubs contract, but their risk is in the 4 years. Where Feldman and Villaneuva are automatic trade targets for a market always starved for starting pitching assets, no team is looking to trade for 2 or 3 seasons of Edwin Jackson starts. Not at $11 million per anyway. So where is the value the Cubs purchased with Edwin Jackson?
Cubs President, Theo Epstein, and Cubs GM, Jed Hoyer, have been very candid about their approach to rebuilding the franchise, and the “bottom-to-top” standard operating procedure they call “The Cubs Way.” Mirroring the front-office strategies they successfully developed with the Red Sox, Epstein and Hoyer emphasize acquiring talent through the draft, and looking for trades that return prospects. Somewhere much farther down the bullet points on that standard operating procedure is the emphasis on acquiring free agents. Epstein and Hoyer are on the record saying they are not looking to acquire expensive contracts on aging players for the Cubs. Call it “The Anti-Jim-Hendry-Way.” Instead, they employ the same combination of scouting and data analysis made famous in the book and film “Moneyball” to identify free agent assets they feel the market has undervalued. So while seven other teams in the last ten years would have told you something different, the Cubs front office believe that Edwin Jackson is undervalued.
There are two areas I believe the Cubs focused on when evaluating Jackson: 1) Reliability. The term “innings-eater” is overused, and broadly-applied to pitchers of varying and debatable skill levels. Jackson is more than that. He’s a consistent performer. He’s thrown close to, or above, 200 innings the past five seasons, and held his ERA between 3.50 and 4.50 along the way. Not great, not terrible, but reliable. 2) The advanced statistical analysis favored by Epstein/Hoyer is all about measuring skill. Trimming away the traditional game-oriented performance metrics for a player, and isolating what the player does or doesn’t do well. The data is telling the Cubs that Jackson is a very skilled pitcher. (I read Ron Shandler’s Baseball Forecaster as a form of bible study, and the Forecaster shows that while Jackson’s ERA went up in his 2nd half with the Nationals last season, his skills actually improved.)
The Cubs are hoping that staying in one place for awhile will give Edwin Jackson the stability he needs to develop his skills and translate them into a better line in the box score. If that actually happens in the future, Edwin Jackson is either a valuable piece on a competitive Cubs roster, or a viable trade asset, regardless of the number of years remaining on his contract. If the skills don’t develop or translate to Wins like they hope (the short stretch of road they are currently on with EJax), the Cubs still have a bona fide starter who can take the ball for 200 innings per season, and help prevent scenarios where options like Rusin, Berken, Volstad, and Germano are attractive.
- Jackson struggles again, Cubs lose 7-4 to Reds (sacbee.com)
- Cubs lose 4th straight as Jackson drops to 0-5 in 7-4 loss (suntimes.com)
- Jackson struggles again, Cubs lose 7-4 to Reds (seattletimes.com)
- Edwin Jackson is a sign of the Cubs’ times (suntimes.com)