When Edwin Jackson started a game last week for the Toronto Blue Jays, he became the first player to every play for 14 different Major League teams. The previous record holder was Octavio Dotel, who played for 13.
Those two journeymen of journeymen teamed up only once, in St. Louis, to help the organization win its 11th World Series title.
By the summer of 2011, Dotel was 37-years-old and in his 12th year in the league. He began his career as so many great relievers do, as a lousy starting pitcher. After coming up through the Mets system and starting 14 games for them in 1999, he was traded for the first time that December - going to Houston along with Roger Cedeno in exchange for Derek Bell and Mike Hampton.
Dotel remained a starter for the first half of the 2000 season with the Astros, amassing an abysmal 5.77 ERA. But when closer Billy Wagner was injured, the club didn’t just move Dotel to the bullpen, they more-or-less inserted him directly as their closer. He would end the season having found the role (reliever) that would define his career, and also becoming the first player ever to start 15 games and have 15 saves in the same season.
Having established himself as a dominant late-inning reliever, Dotel would play out most of the remainder of his club-controlled years in Houston. But as free agency loomed, he was dealt to Oakland at the 2004 trade deadline as part of a three-team, five-player deal that, most notably, moved Carlos Beltran from the Royals to the Astros.
That set in motion the pattern that would persist for the rest of his career: Dotel would sign a free agent deal for one or maybe two years, then be dealt at the trade deadline to a contender. Dotel was traded six times during his major league career, including twice in 2010 - when he was traded from the Pirates to the Dodgers and then to the Rockies.
In January of 2011, Dotel signed a one-year deal with the Toronto Blue Jays for $3 million. He appeared in 36 games, typically in the 8th inning, cranking out the kind of consistent innings he had been producing like a metronome for a decade. Then on July 27, he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals.
The trade was technically an 8-player swap between the Jays and Cardinals, with four players going each way. The Blue Jays got Colby Rasmus, Trevor Miller, Brian Tallet and P.J. Walters. The Cardinals received Dotel, Corey Patterson, Mark Rzepczynski and a 27-year-old starter who was himself already moving to his 6th team: Edwin Jackson.
Whereas Dotel is exactly the kind of player you would expect to set a record for changing teams, Jackson is quite the opposite. Dotel was a high-quality reliever who maintained his value into his late 30s - exactly the kind of guy who gets signed to a series of one-year deals and swapped at the trade deadline.
Jackson, on the other hand, began his career as a teenage phenom. He jumped from top prospect lists into the Major Leagues at the age of 19, starting three games that season for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Only two other pitchers since 2000 have done that: Felix Hernandez and Julio Urias. Across the whole of baseball history, the short list of players to make a starting rotation as teenagers is littered with Hall of Famers and all-time greats.
While Jackson would never fulfill the teenage phenom potential, in some ways he became even more of a unicorn: A guy who breaks into the league at 19 as a 5th starter and remains a 5th starter for going-on 20 years.
Throughout his career, Jackson has hovered almost exclusively above replacement level but below league average. And that has made him a similar asset to Dotel: A guy who is just enough of an upgrade over internal options to be worth a one-year deal or worth acquiring at the trade deadline to plug a hole.
That said, when Jackson came to St. Louis, it was at the height of his relatively flat career. 2009 - 2011 would be the three seasons Jackson would post a WAR above 3.0, spanning time with the Tigers, Diamondbacks, White Sox and Cardinals. You’ll notice despite being traded from the Blue Jays, Jackson never played for them (until last week). That’s because he was traded from the White Sox to the Jays on the same day he was flipped to the Cardinals as part of a de facto 3-team deal. They don’t call him Transaction Jackson for nothing.
The legend of that 2011 trade is that the Cardinals dumped underachieving crybaby Colby Rasmus for an army of pitchers that led them straight to a World Series win. I generally agree that it’s best to print the legend, but I’ll note here that the reality was a little more hazy.
For the month after the trade, the Cardinals winning percentage remained unchanged, and they went from one game behind the Brewers to 10.5 games out. Jackson, Dotel (and Rzepczynski) were... fine. They filled roles in the bullpen and rotation. That was about it.
But in a mundane yet real way, that might be exactly what allowed the Cardinals to reach and then make that playoff run (well, that and a historic collapse from the Braves). And it might be a hallmark of exactly what the 2019 Cardinals could use.
Dotel and Jackson were not stars, they were just GUYS. But when it comes to a bullpen and a rotation, league average-ish players can be very valuable when they allow a team to cut bait on TERRIBLE players.
Edwin Jackson’s arrival meant the departure of Kyle McClellan’s sub-replacement level performance from the rotation. Dotel and Rzep, along with of course a youth movement from Jason Motte, Mitchell Boggs and Lance Lynn, meant the team no longer had to rely on extremely poor performers like 2011 Ryan Franklin.
The 2019 Cardinals pitching staff has been weighed down by some extremely poor performers, both in the rotation and the bullpen. If this team manages to hang around the Wild Card race at the trade deadline, it could well benefit from some journeymen who may not be able to carry the team on their shoulders, but could at least keep their heads above water.
In other words, they could use players like Octavio Dotel and Edwin Jackson.