The Cubs finalized contracts with Edwin Jackson and Carlos Villanueva today, which gives the Cubs something like 18 starters. I lost count. The good news is that Edwin Jackson is actually good unlike the other 22 starters they signed this offseason. Jackson has been underrated for some time and that's in part to how miserably he performed when he reached the big leagues.
According to my count, the Cubs now have 31 starting pitchers on their active roster. I know, I told you I lost count. I lied.
If you want to feel old, Jackson reached the big leagues a decade ago. Seriously. He was 20 years old when he made his debut with the Dodgers and had superstar talent. He was one of the top ranked prospects in baseball and it did not go well. That happens and it's a sobering reminder to Cubs fans waiting for all the prospects to mature and become stars.
Jackson turned it around, but not with the Dodgers. Following the 2005 season he was traded to the Devil Rays where he would still not be any good. By this time it seemed like he had been around for a decade and there was nothing left.
The Tigers was his next destination and that's when the turnaround began. Since then he's been consistently above average in much the same way that Matt Garza had been consistently above average. Since 2008, Jackson has been worth 15.4 fWAR, 12.1 rWAR and 8 WARP while Garza has been worth 13.7 fWAR, 11.2 rWAR and 7.7 WARP.
Jackson is basically the same age as Garza (a month or so younger) and has been more valuable than Garza since 2008. Jackson has thrown 100 more innings since then, but that's not at all a bad thing.
The point I'm trying to make is that the Cubs essentially added another Matt Garza to their rotation and although neither of them are the typical number 1 starter that you'd like, both of them are, as I said, consistently above average. While we can expect both to get a little worse over the next few years, both are pretty good right now. Of course, Garza is a free agent after the 2013 season so beyond that is of little relevance to the Chicago Cubs at the moment.
The projections for the two are also very similar. Jackson's CAIRO is a 3.99 RA, 3.72 ERA, 3.61 FIP and 2.8 WAR over 192 innings (projected as a National). Garza's CAIRO is a 4.13 RA, 3.71 ERA, 3.69 FIP and 2.6 WAR over 150 innings. Put one at the top of the rotation and it's not what you'd want from a contending team, but not at all bad either.
Is Jackson worth $52 million over 4 years? Yeah, I'd say he is. If we use CAIRO's 2.6 WAR projection, factor in his age and the win value, we might come up with a projection over 4 years that looks something like this:
Total: 8.5, avg win value of $6.5 million, total value $55.3 million
You could fudge any of those numbers and make it look different. The win value could be even higher than that, but it's unknown and I'm not sure we think that teams (the Cubs) are expecting it to be that much higher, but I don't know. He might be closer to 7 WAR over 4 years and he could be projected closer to 10. Splitting things down the middle makes this a good deal for the Cubs.
Now, the other 36 starters.
Garza will probably get the nod on Opening Day since he did so last year and Jackson will follow him the next day. After him we'll see Jeff Samardzija, Scott Baker (if or when he's healthy) and then there's a number of options to fill that final spot. The Cubs have Travis Wood, Scott Feldman and Carlos Villanueva as options. More than likely all of them will see time in the rotation.
Jeff Samardzija's baseline projection is 2.0 WAR according to CAIRO (my WAR calculation though, CAIRO had him at 1.5), but keep in mind that includes some time as a reliever. This gives the Cubs 3 starters average or better.
The backend of the Cubs rotation looks like this:
Baker: 0.2 (only 30 innings)
Hoyer apparently did some promising to Feldman that he'd be in the rotation. I'm not sure he could have been more clear than this: "We certainly gave him the reassurance here: ‘You’re going to be a starting pitcher. You’re going to be in the rotation."
If the Cubs changed gears they certainly wouldn't be the first team to want a do-over on what was previous said. About all Feldman could say in response is "no take backs." Although Feldman may very well be the least impressive of the starters the Cubs have, I'm going to assume that Hoyer isn't going back on his word because, well, that just doesn't sit well with other players and free agents down the road. That's not to say that a few bad starts and we'll see Feldman in the bullpen, but I'm thinking right now that Feldman is in the opening day rotation.
Scott Baker will probably not be ready to start the season, but if all goes well he shouldn't be too far behind. If he doesn't have any setbacks, my guess at this early point would be that we'd see Baker at the very end of April or beginning of May. That leaves at least a few starts for Feldman to either solidify his role in the rotation or earn himself a trip to the bullpen.
Based on projections alone, Wood deserves to the 4th starter and considering how he pitched last year I'm going to guess he's going to be a part of the rotation, but I wouldn't bet any money on it. This would leave Villanueva as the odd man out.
A rotation of Garza, Jackson, Samardzija, Wood and Feldman isn't bad. It's not great, but it's definitely not bad. It's probably a bit better than last year's rotation entering the season, but only a shade better.
If there's anything we've learned this offseason it's that Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer rightly believe that the Cubs pitching prospects are so far away from contending that they had to go outside the organization to fill some spots. They cobbled together a not-so-bad rotation without spending a ton of money.