At the start of the off-season I had Edwin Jackson listed as a pitcher that I liked, but one that I never thought would be a possibility for the Pittsburgh Pirates. A few weeks ago I pointed out that the market for the 28 year old right hander has been surprisingly quiet. There were talks that Jackson’s asking price was high, although we didn’t really have any solid numbers.
Wallace Matthews of ESPN New York reports that Jackson is asking for five years and $12 M a year. That figure makes sense for the Scott Boras client. John Danks just signed a five year, $65 M contract with the Chicago White Sox. Danks is a year younger than Jackson, and has put up better numbers over the last three years, although the results are close enough to put the two starters in the same class. Danks has a 3.92 ERA in 583.2 innings over the last three years, with a 6.9 K/9 and a 2.9 BB/9 ratio. Jackson has a 3.96 ERA in 623 innings over the last three years, with a 7.1 K/9 and a 3.0 BB/9.
Matthews points out that Boras has been pushing Jackson to the Yankees, but the Yankees are balking due to money. That seems to be the case with a lot of other teams this off-season. The Pirates aren’t known for making big splashes on the free agent market, so asking if they have a shot at Jackson in a down market seems unrealistic. The logic would be: If the Yankees can’t afford Jackson, then how could the Pirates afford him? But without dismissing the possibility, let’s explore whether the Pirates can afford him and how realistic Edwin Jackson could be.
The first question is how Jackson would fit in the 2012 payroll. The Pirates are currently projected for a payroll of around $46 M. The Pirates could arrange a deal to fit Jackson in to the 2012 payroll and still end up in the $55 M range. So there’s definitely room in the budget. Looking at the long term, the Pirates don’t have much committed in payroll. From 2013-2016 the Pirates have no more than $6.5 M committed in a single year. The Pirates will add to those figures with arbitration payments, but they should be in a position where they could work around a big contract.
The next question has to do with the length of the deal. A five year deal is a big risk for any player. If something happens to Jackson, either injury-wise or with his performance, the Pirates would have that dead weight taking up about 20-25% of their payroll. Jackson has been a steady pitcher, making 31+ starts in each of his last five seasons. He’s also thrown 200 innings or more in each of the last three years. He’s 28, so he should be in his prime, rather than heading towards a decline. Jackson seems like a safe bet for a five year deal.
The risks of a high salary and a long term deal are risks the Pirates will have to take at some point if they want to be competitive. But they have to make the right move with the right player. Is Jackson that player?
I pointed out the similarities with Jackson and Danks earlier. Jackson had a rough start to his career. He was called up way too young at the age of 19. After parts of three seasons in the majors with the Dodgers he was traded to Tampa Bay. He struggled in his first year with the Rays, at the age of 22. He made 31 starts at the age of 23, although he had a 5.76 ERA in 161 innings. The next year he had a bit of a breakout season, making 31 starts and putting up a 4.42 ERA in 183.1 innings, which was a huge turnaround from his previous numbers.
After that 2008 season, which came at the age of 24, Jackson started showing his potential. He struggled in Arizona in 2010, but outside of that his last three years have been excellent. He’s an innings eater who gets strikeouts and limits walks. He’s not a number one, although he’d be the ace of the Pirates’ staff. His numbers shouldn’t decline just yet, so he looks like a safe and productive option for the next few years.
Despite his success the last few years, Jackson hasn’t been in high demand. He’s been with five teams in the last four seasons, traded mid-season in each of the last two years. His numbers have been strong, and he’s been a 200 inning a year guy. That combination is usually something in high demand on the free agent market. He’s averaged a 3.7 WAR per year over the last three years, which is $18.5 M in value at $5 M per win. So would Jackson be worth it for the Pirates?
Looking at the market for Jackson, it seems that if a team steps forward with $60 M over five years, they’ll get him. That kind of a contract would be a huge commitment for the Pirates. They would pretty much be relying on Jackson to be a key member of the team. There probably wouldn’t be any room for an additional big splash in the future, unless the team saw a major payroll increase. Jackson isn’t a flashy player, but he’s not a bad player either.
The Pirates haven’t been linked to Jackson. They are prioritizing a starting pitcher, but no word on whether they’re looking for a big addition like Jackson, or a smaller addition like Paul Maholm, Jeff Francis, or Wei-Yin Chen. Signing Jackson would be a good move for the Pirates. His five year and $60 M asking price might be a little high, but it’s not outrageous. The Pirates were comfortable over-paying for Clint Barmes and Rod Barajas earlier this off-season. That was on a smaller scale in each case — a raise for Barajas over his 2011 salary, and an extra year for Barmes — but they realized that this was necessary for them to get their player.
Looking at how the market is shaping up, it seems like the Pirates could get Jackson just by meeting his asking price. They can afford him, as seen in the payroll links above. He would upgrade the rotation in 2012, giving it a 200 inning pitcher and a likely sub-4.00 ERA. In the following years he’d be a great addition to Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon as they made their way to the majors. If he maintains his 2009-2011 numbers, the Pirates could probably deal him with a year or two remaining on his contract, should they need the payroll room in 2015-2016. Jackson makes a lot of sense for the Pirates, both in the short term and long term. It’s only speculation that he’d be available to them, but that speculation comes from a market where the only reports on Jackson are reports of teams balking at his asking price. That asking price is affordable for the Pirates, which is why it would make sense for them to look to Jackson to upgrade the rotation.