Jackson, Cubs hope stability breeds success

MESA, Ariz.
— Over the past four seasons, 19 major league pitchers have averaged 200 innings or better per season. Only two of them have done it pitching for four different teams: Cy Young winner Cliff Lee and Edwin Jackson.

Jackson’s vagabond career takes him to another baseball home for 2013: The Chicago Cubs. This time, he hopes to put down roots.

The Cubs will be his sixth major league team since 2009 — following, in order, Detroit, Arizona, Chicago White Sox, St. Louis and Washington. But he arrives at the northside of Chicago with the newfound stability of a four-year, $52 million deal. Jackson finally has the chance to settle in and try to elevate his game to another level.

“It definitely feels good,” Jackson said. “It’s reassuring that you’re going to be somewhere for a few years and have the chance to be in the same clubhouse around the same guys for a few years.”
In 2012, Jackson lasted an entire season with the Nationals. That represented progress for a pitcher who was dealt midway through the previous two seasons. When he puts on the Cubs uniform for Opening Day, it will be his eighth big-league team in 11 seasons. And yet, with all that moving around, he’s still just 29 years old. His major league debut came with the Los Angeles Dodgers on his 20th birthday — Sept. 9, 2003.

“He got to the big leagues at such a young age, and he really never pitched in high school,” Cubs manager Dale Sveum said. “He pitched some innings in high school, but he got to the big leagues learning how to pitch, and I think all that’s coming together now.”

There doesn’t seem to be much explanation for the nomadic nature of Jackson’s career other than the fact he hasn’t been in one place long enough to prove he’s worth a long-term deal. His best year, numbers wise, came at age 25 with the Tigers in 2009 (13-9, 3.62 ERA), but that just earned him a place in a big three-team deal involving Curtis Granderson, Ian Kennedy, Max Scherzer and Austin Jackson.

Since then, he’s been traded three more times and signed a pair of free-agent contracts.

“He was just stuck in that category of the guy who kept getting traded and moving on because he couldn’t sign a multiyear contract, so teams were getting prospects for him all the time,” Sveum said. “It’s not because of his personality — the guy’s a phenomenal hard worker and a great guy in the clubhouse.”

As unstable as Jackson’s career has been, his performance has been just the opposite. He has not posted eye-popping numbers, but he has been one of baseball’s most durable pitchers, starting the ninth-most games in the majors (189) since 2007. He’s made 31 or more starts in each of the last six seasons, thrown the 17th most innings and avoided the disabled list altogether.

The Cubs are banking on the fact that Jackson’s durability combined with the chance to settle in somewhere will create a perfect storm for the hard-throwing right-hander.

“It takes a big load off your back and you can just go out and perform,” Sveum said “You don’t have to worry about the next contract. That takes a lot of pressure off anybody.”

With the pressure of his next deal out of mind, Jackson can now focus on complimenting a mid- to high-90s fastball and devastating slider — a pitch hitters swung and missed at nearly half the time Jackson threw it last season — with a changeup and curveball.

It’s probably a stretch to say Jackson will become a Cy Young contender in Chicago, but there are plenty of pitchers that hit their peak at Jackson’s age. Lee won his Cy Young Awards at ages 29 and 30.

Jackson has won 10 or more games every year since 2008 and owns a 3.98 ERA over the past four seasons. He also comes to Chicago with seven postseason wins, an all-star appearance (2009) and a no-hitter (on 149 pitches with the Diamondbacks in 2010) to his name.

Jackson says a number of things made the Cubs an attractive landing spot. There’s the city, the team’s history and fellow starters Matt Garza and Jeff Samardzija. What really sold him, though, were the conversations he had with Sveum, general manager Jed Hoyer and team president Theo Epstein.

“The conversations I had with them were pretty positive,” Jackson said. “It was definitely expectations to win. It wasn’t just like they’re trying to rebuild the team to win in a couple years. They believe that we can come out and start winning ball games now.”

With the largest contract given to any player since the Ricketts family bought the Cubs in 2009, Jackson is clearly a big part of that vision. He knows that and understands the expectations that come with the security of a long-term deal.

“You can’t get too complacent, and you can’t get too comfortable,” Jackson said. “You still have to have some edge and you have to come out ready to compete.”

Jackson also knows perhaps better than any player in baseball today not to get too comfortable in one place. He figures to be part of the picture in Chicago for at least a few years but remains aware anything can happen.

“It’s a four-year deal, but you still have to take it one season at a time,” Jackson said. “You’re not looking too far ahead, but it’s definitely a comfortable feeling knowing that you’re going to be in a place for a few years.”