Is Cubs' Edwin Jackson Signing Right Move for Theo's Rebuilding Plan?

Ian Casselberry@iancassMLB Lead WriterDecember 21, 2012

Edwin Jackson signed a four-year deal with the Cubs.
Edwin Jackson signed a four-year deal with the Cubs.Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

The Chicago Cubs added the starting pitcher that team president Theo Epstein was looking for, inking Edwin Jackson to a four-year, $52 million contract on Thursday (Dec. 20).

The deal was first reported by CSN Chicago's Patrick Mooney.

Previously this offseason, the Cubs tried to get Dan Haren from the Los Angeles Angels before they had to pick up his option for 2013. The teams actually had a deal in place, with the Cubs agreeing to send reliever Carlos Marmol to Anaheim in exchange.

But before the trade could be completed, Epstein apparently changed his mind after getting a look at Haren's medical information. As reported by CSN Chicago's David Kaplan, the Cubs had concerns about Haren's back—which put him on the disabled list this year—and hip. 

The Cubs then became a surprise bidder for Anibal Sanchez, generally considered the second-best free-agent pitcher available after Zack Greinke. Initial reports from USA Today's Bob Nightengale even had the Cubs signing Sanchez to a five-year deal, believed to be worth $75 million. 

But while the Cubs thought they had a deal, Sanchez's agent considered it an offer to take back to the Detroit Tigers for a higher offer. Tigers owner Mike Ilitch badly wanted Sanchez back in Detroit's rotation and eventually outbid Chicago with an $80 million contract. 

Epstein finally got his man on the third try, however. Having to settle for Plan C may have ultimately worked out for the best.

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The Cubs are in Year 2 of Epstein's rebuilding project. This team is realistically still at least a couple of seasons from being able to contend in the NL Central.

Signing a top free-agent pitcher to be a No. 1 starter would have been taking too far a jump. The Cubs aren't ready for that kind of player to make a difference yet.

Bringing in someone to pitch in the middle of the rotation made much more sense. A pitcher like Jackson, who can eat up a lot of innings and provide a veteran presence, is a much better fit on the North Side. By the time the Cubs are playoff-ready, Jackson might be that salty veteran whom we'd all like to see get another World Series ring.

This is the kind of signing that Epstein made in his first years as Boston Red Sox general manager before he began going crazy with spending in an effort to keep up with the New York Yankees. By that point, they'd essentially become the Yankees. 

The perception might be that Jackson is a much older pitcher than Sanchez, but he's actually only one year older. Jackson turned 29 in September while Sanchez was 28 years old in February. Giving him a four-year contract is not outlandish. 

But Jackson has 10 years in the major leagues, as opposed to Sanchez's seven. That might be why Jackson seems older. Of course, that does mean that he has more mileage on his right arm. He's thrown 1268.2 innings over his career, while Sanchez has pitched 869. 

However, if you consider that a successful MLB pitcher is expected to throw 200 innings per year, Jackson has pitched the equivalent of two seasons more than Sanchez. That's not a significant difference. 

Jackson being a workhorse starter capable of throwing 200 innings might be the best feature he brings to the Cubs. Every rotation needs a pitcher who can rack up a big number of innings and give both the other starters and the bullpen a breather whenever his turn comes up. 

The Cubs didn't have a 200-inning starter this season. Jeff Samardzija may have reached that total had he been allowed to pitch more than 28 starts. But in his first season as a starter after being converted from a reliever, an 175-inning limit was imposed upon him. 

Matt Garza has two 200-inning seasons on his résumé (he essentially has three, having thrown 198 innings in 2011, his first year with the Cubs), but was limited to 18 starts and 103.2 innings this year due to a stress reaction injury in his right elbow. 

Jackson has also thrown 200 innings twice in his career, but also has three seasons in which he pitched more than 180 innings. He actually finished just two-thirds of an inning short of the 200-inning mark in 2011 while pitching for the Chicago White Sox and St. Louis Cardinals

If all three pitchers stay healthy, the Cubs could potentially have three 200-inning starters at the top of their rotation. That would be an amazing luxury, though there's obviously no guarantee of any of those pitchers—let alone all three—reaching that benchmark. 

The Tampa Bay Rays had the best starting rotation in MLB this year, with David Price and James Shields each pitching over 200 innings. Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner both exceeded 200 innings for the San Francisco Giants.

That's not to suggest that the Cubs starters will lead MLB in ERA and opponents' batting average next season. They're not going to win the World Series either.

But being able to take on that kind of workload matters. It might be one of the most underrated skills when judging the best pitchers in baseball. A guy who can go deep into a ballgame, make every one of his starts and give his fellow pitchers some rest is a valuable resource on a major league roster. 

Going in big for a high-priced free agent would have been the wrong move at this stage of the Cubs' development. The Tigers may have actually done Epstein a favor by making the highest offer for Sanchez. In effect, Ilitch saved Epstein from himself and his worst impulses. 

Jackson is a winner too. He won his championship ring with the Cardinals in 2011, so long-term security was more important for him at this point of his career. After bouncing among seven teams (eight, if you count the Blue Jays, who flipped him before he even played for them), the man is ready for some stability.

This is the right pairing at the right time for both sides. It could end up being a prosperous relationship.

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