Right now, the Chicago Cubs are a wreck of a team.
Yes, they have some nice pieces in Starlin Castro and Matt Garza; but they also have a lot of veterans who simply won't stick around long enough to help the team when the time is right for contention. Carlos Zambrano and Ryan Dempster come off the books after this year (a combined $32 million commitment for 2012), and their starts every fifth day will need to be replaced.
As of right now, it appears the Cubs' rotation will consist of some combination of Garza, Zambrano, Dempster, Randy Wells, Andrew Cashner, Travis Wood (my analysis of the trade can be read here) and maybe a surprise like Jeff Samardzija, Rodrigo Lopez, Jay Jackson or Robert Whitenack. However, Zambrano and Dempster likely won't be wearing a Cubs uniform in 2013, and Randy Wells probably shouldn't be either. I'd even be impressed if any of them, let alone all three, are still on the Cubs roster come August 1st, 2012.
That said, it leaves the Cubs with Cashner, Garza and Wood as the starters who will be around in 2013. Of course, the Cubs won't mind if Zambrano pitches so well his option vests, as a top-four finish in the Cy Young voting would be welcomed and probably mean the Cubs were in the playoff race until at least September. Odds are, though, that won't happen. So the Cubs will be needing another arm.
In 2011, Doug Davis, Ramon Ortiz, Casey Coleman, Rodrigo Lopez and James Russell combined for 49 starts for the Cubs. As starters, the group went 10-29 and logged only 245 innings, an exact average of five innings per start. Over those 245 innings, that stalwart group of starters had a 5.91 ERA, 1.70 WHIP, 11.46 H/9, 3.82 BB/9—all simply awful rate stats.
Edwin Jackson and Travis Wood also combined for 49 starts in 2011. Jackson and Wood threw a combined 299.2 IP, going 17-15, with a combined ERA of 4.23, a WHIP of 1.46, 10.21 H/9, 3.0 BB/9, which is better than it seems looking at the stats on face value.
First of all, Jackson is pretty much a lock to throw nearly 200 innings a year, and his 198.2 innings pitched would have put him second on the 2011 Cubs, squeezed between Ryan Dempster (202.1) and Matt Garza (198). Despite seeming to have been around forever, Jackson only turned 28 this year, and has continued to show improvement. Odds are he'd improve even more so if he were to spend more than half a season with any one pitching coach.
Second, Jackson has youth on his side. As opposed to the other free agent options, Edwin Jackson is the youngest starter on the market with proved value. Sure, Hiroki Kuroda is still a quality arm, but he's not going to get any younger. Joe Saunders is a solid mid- to back-of-the-rotation arm, but how many of those lefties do you really need—or want—on your staff?
Third, Jackson has been to two World Series: in 2008 with Tampa Bay, and this year with the eventual champion St. Louis Cardinals. Sure, he got rocked by the Brewers in the NLCS, but his other postseason pitching is solid. Nothing to write home about, but also nothing to be ashamed of.
Finally, Jackson would be a poaching from a divisional rival. Right now, the Cardinals are trying to convince themselves that Carlos Beltran will be able to replace Albert Pujols in their lineup. Sure, they'll be getting Adam Wainwright back and won't need Jackson, their No. 2 starter; but he'd still be a steal from the Cardinals. There seems to be something about the Central division that makes Jackson put up his best numbers (Detroit, the White Sox, and St. Louis).
Conversely, Prince Fielder is a perfect example of the law of diminishing returns. Sure, Fielder can hit great, but so can every other team's first baseman. The Cubs can't afford another Soriano situation, with a bad, fat contract hanging over their heads. With guys like Rebel Ridling, Dan Vogelbach and Trevor Gretzky coming through the system, the Cubs can easily afford to pass on Prince. Vogelbach in particular has drawn many comparisons to Fielder.
If the Cubs do decide to grab a free agent first baseman, they could always bring back Derrek Lee or Carlos Pena, both of whom provide quality defense, a solid bat and good clubhouse leadership. Of course, they could also look to alternatives like Casey Kotchman, or even try converting someone to first base like Johnny Damon.
While Scott Boras supposedly wants a John Danks-type deal for Jackson, he won't muster that. But maybe three years and $35 million could be a realistic offer to get Jackson to add some more youth to Chicago's rotation. Many thought Jackson would be signed very quickly during the free agent season, assuming he'd be overpaid as the ace that he isn't. However, signing Jackson for a few years to bolster the top half of Chicago's rotation could be a wise first major move by Jed Hoyer.