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The fascinating career of Edwin Jackson

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The strange, twisty tale of the brief former Cardinal

St Louis Cardinals v Milwaukee Brewers - Game Six

I was watching Game 1 of the 2010 NLDS between the Reds and Phillies on Youtube, and when Orlando Cabrera came to the plate to face Roy Halladay, I was confused. I did not remember Cabrera playing on the Reds. It wasn’t hard to figure out why. He was there for one year and he was not particularly good. The 75 wRC+ hitter was batting 2nd. Anyway, that caused me to look at his career and I was surprised at how old he was at the time and also that he had such a long career.

I also noticed that he was part of a 4-team trade and was traded three other times. He played for nine different teams. I thought it would be interesting to just pick a random player and look at his career. Cabrera’s career sounds more interesting than it is unfortunately. He was drafted by the Montreal Expos, was a reasonably well-regarded prospect, and stayed with his drafted team up until two months before free agency. This was when the 4 team traded happened, which also involved Nomar Garciaparra and Doug Mientkiewicz.

That trade is fascinating, mostly because there were four teams involved, but that’s pretty much where my interest with Cabrera dies. Cabrera became a free agent, signed a four year deal with the Angels, and was traded before year four. He then signed a bunch of one year deals until he retired and in two of those years he got traded midseason. And since Cabrera was a dependable, but below average shortstop at the end, neither of those trades were for anyone we know.

But it did get me intrigued about profiling a random player who was perhaps a bit more interesting who got traded a lot. Edwin Jackson popped into my head immediately. Some of you probably know why his name naturally came to me. He was traded six times and all of them were before he reached his six years of service. Although two of them were on the same day, so it’s unfair to count that as two trades. He has played for 14 organizations. He has signed as a free agent with eight different teams, two of which have signed him multiple times, and been released midseason four times. He is currently signed to a minor league deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks, his second stop there.

The weirdest thing about Edwin Jackson is that, as strange as it is that his career has turned out the way that it has, his career has been anything but strange. If he simply played for like five teams and he had the same career, there would be nothing strange about him at all. He aged quicker than most pitchers do, but otherwise he went from a below average pitcher to a good pitcher, then to an average pitcher, and then to a replacement pitcher. The last part happened quicker than expected - just ask the Cubs - but that’s not terribly unusual for a pitcher who debuts as 19.

Edwin Jackson was born in West Germany, because his father was in the US Army and stationed there at the time. He spent a few years in Germany and a few years in Louisiana before spending his time in Columbus, Georgia as a teenager. Jackson was a standout outfielder there, helping lead his team to a State Championship title in Georgia. He was drafted out of high school in the 6th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was only 17-years-old. In his first year, the Dodgers tried him out as pitching as well as giving him a few PAs. He batted .308/.379/.423 in 29 PAs, but the Dodgers immediately abandoned him as a hitter after 2001.

As a pitcher, Jackson was... well he was about as good as could be expected for a raw pitcher playing professional baseball for the first time at 17. He struck out 23 in 22 IP, but also walked 19. The Dodgers were pleased obviously, but those stats scream project to me. And yet the Dodgers sent him to Single A in 2002. Jackson had a 1.98 ERA with 85 Ks to 33 BBs in 104.2 IP. Again, this is an 18-year-old pitcher with very little in the way of experience jumping a few levels and pretty much dominating. He was the #99 prospect by Baseball America after that season.

The Dodgers kept pushing him. They sent him to AA the next year at 19-years-old and while he wasn’t dominant exactly, he was very good. He struck out 157 in 148.1 IP while walking 53 batters. And this was a time when pitchers weren’t exactly striking out over a batter per inning. The Dodgers gave him 22 IP and 3 starts in the major leagues that year, and he had a 2.45 ERA/4.12 FIP while striking out 20.9% of hitters. This is a 19-year-old, so it’s little surprise that when Baseball America publishes their 2004 rankings, Jackson is the #4 prospect in baseball.

Things went poorly in 2004 though. Jackson played for the Las Vegas 51s, and if I know my minor league stadiums well, that is not a great place to play for a pitcher at all. He started 19 games and walked 55 batters this season. Which doesn’t sound that bad - he walked 53 the year before - but he only pitched 90 innings and struck out just 70 batters. It led to a 5.86 ERA. His MLB time went worse - in 24.2 IP he struck out just 14.2% of batters and had a 7.30 ERA. He fell to the #30 prospect in baseball.

If 2004 went poorly, 2005 was worse. His AAA numbers are juiced ball in 2019 bad and by that I mean, they would be concerningly bad by even 2019 standards. In 55.1 IP, he walked 37 and struck out 33, which led to a 8.62 ERA. The Dodgers sent him down to AA, his numbers were more normal, but dramatically worse than his numbers in AA two years ago, with just 44 Ks and 18 BBs in 62 IP with a 4.50 ERA. At the end of the year the Dodgers brought him to the majors again - he walked more than he struck out en route to a 6.28 ERA.

Dodgers gave up on him. Were they too aggressive with him? Because they were ridiculously aggressive with him. If you just want to wipe out his AAA and MLB numbers, he’s still a 21-year-old who had a solid season in AA. Not #4 prospect in the nation, but still a promising prospect. Who did the Dodgers trade him for? Two relievers. That is not a joke. They received 31-year-old Lance Carter, who had a 4.89 ERA and 5.14 FIP the year before, and 29-year-old Danys Baez, who at least had an extremely misleading 2.86 ERA, but which also came with a 4.20 FIP, Carter pitched 11.2 IP with a 8.49 ERA before being released and Baez had a 4.35 ERA through 49.2 IP before being traded for Wilson Betemit. Bad process trade, worked out as poorly as possible. Love it.

The Rays stuck him in AAA, he sort of rebounded with a 5.55 ERA, but also a 4.07 FIP and they brought him up for the MLB bullpen, where he wasn’t very good. Being a bad team and with Jackson out of options at this point, he started 31 games in 2007 and they didn’t go very well either. On the plus side, they were about the same as his numbers in the bullpen the year before. But that meant he had a 5.76 ERA and 4.90 FIP, which resulted in a 1.2 WAR season, which I guess is about as good as can be expected for a guy clearly not ready for the majors yet. This was still his age 23 season.

At 24, Jackson was the worst member of the 2008 Rays rotation that won 97 games and made it to the World Series. He was superficially better with a 4.42 ERA, but had a nearly identical FIP to the year before. At this point, he’s entering arbitration and the Rays are the Rays, but more importantly, the logic to trade him is sound. He had an identical season the year before, but had a much better ERA. They also had a little known guy named David Price, who needed a spot in the rotation.

They traded him to the Detroit Tigers for a 24-year-old Matthew Joyce, coming off a rookie season with a 117 wRC+ in 277 PAs. Joyce spent most of 2009 in AAA, but ended up with 10.9 fWAR for the Rays before leaving after the 2014 season, which is when they traded him and he immediately had a -1.2 WAR season, The Rays come off looking pretty good in this saga.

The Tigers were coming off a 74-88 season, but they weren’t far from a World Series appearance (wonder who they lost to?) and a decent amount of their lineup still remained from that season. The Tigers needed a starting pitcher more than an outfielder (which had Curtis Granderson, Magglio Ordonez, Marcus Thames, and Ryan Raburn), hence the trade. He broke out with the Tigers. He pitched 214 innings and had 3.7 fWAR. The Tigers only won 86 games though.

They didn’t trade him because they were selling though. The beginning of year payroll in 2009 was $115 million. With zero free agent additions and not factoring in the league mimimum guys (which would come to probably like $5-10 million), the Tigers payroll in 2010 would have been $119 million. Tigers didn’t want to stand pat though, so they traded two established players making money (Jackson’s 2010 salary ended at $5 million, Curtis Granderson was at $5.5 million) for replacements making little money (Max Scherzer at $1.5 million; Austin Jackson $400,000). The Tigers ended up spending $15 million on Johnny Damon (2.4 fWAR) and Jose Valverde (0.6 fWAR). Scherzer broke out (4.1 fWAR) and Austin Jackson was in 2nd in AL Rookie of Year with 4.1 fWAR. Despite this individual set of moves working out as well as possible, they went 81-81 anyway.

Granderson went to the Yankees, where he was worth 16.1 fWAR in 4 years for just $36.8 million. Jackson was worth 14.9 fWAR in 4 and half seasons and made less than $10 million while with the Tigers before being traded at exactly the right time. We all know the story with Scherzer. They got a third guy, Daniel Schlereth, who did nothing and a fourth guy, Phil Coke, who had a couple good years out of the bullpen as well. The DBacks got Ian Kennedy, who was no Scherzer but pretty good for a few years, and Edwin.

The 2010 Diamondbacks were awful. On July 30, the Dbacks were 38-65 and ended the season with 65 wins. Naturally, they sold. They traded him for the White Sox #1 prospect and #7 prospect as of the John Sickel’s team rankings prior to the 2010 season. The #7 prospect, David Holmberg, pitched 3.2 total innings for the Dbacks before he himself being in a 3 person trade that is not nearly interesting enough to rehash. Hudson was an excellent starter for the rest of the 2010 season and in 2011, before being forced to move to the bullpen. The Dbacks sure come out the loser of that 3 team trade in every way.

The White Sox were actually up 1.5 games when they made that trade, but finished the season with 88 wins and 6 games out. On July 27th the next season, they were 51-52. So they sold. Jackson ended up on the Cards, but the White Sox had essentially nothing to do with it, which is why it’s two separate trades. The White Sox got Zach Stewart, who was terrible for them until he was traded for a decent half season of Kevin Youkilis the next trading deadline, and Jason Frasor, who they traded back to the Blue Jays in the offseason. The White Sox also traded Mark Teahen, who was released the next offseason by the Jays.

The Blue Jays were 52-52 and 13 games out of first and had no real use for Edwin Jackson, but they did have use for a player the Cardinals could offer. In a truly bizarre trade, the Cardinals sent them Colby Rasmus, Brian Tallet, PJ Walters, and Trever Miller. Walters was a thrown-in and Tallett and Miller were dead weight left-handed specialists. Rasmus was the real prize. The Cardinals, in addition to Jackson, got a left-hander in Mark Rzepcyzsnki, a run of the mill reliever in Octavio Dotel, and Corey Patterson for some reason.

Well you know how this ends. That run of the mill reliever - and make no mistake he was as replacement as they came at the time - randomly caught on fire and was one of the best relievers in baseball for the rest of that half season and the postseason. Rzep had a strong finish to the season, but was more or less not very good the rest of the time he had a Cards uniform on before being traded for nothing in the middle of 2013. Jackson was solid, not great, with the Cards in 12 starts (his postseason starts were pretty bad). And Rasmus had one more good season left in him. This trade had no business working out as well as it did, and technically they definitely lost in value anyway. But rings.

Jackson left the Cards and signed a one year deal with the Nationals. He started his decline this season, putting together a 2.1 WAR season after three straight years with 3+ fWAR. The Cubs, oblivious to this evidently, gave him a 4 year deal that worked out as poorly as possible. In his first and best season, he was worth 2 fWAR, but his ERA was 4.98. His second season was a 6.33 ERA in 140.2 IP. They moved him to the bullpen in year three and while he had a 2.91 FIP and 3.19 ERA there, the Cubs released him midseason. He finished out the year with the Braves.

He signed with the Marlins to be a part of their bullpen, and after 8 not particularly inspiring outings, he was released in June. By late June, the Padres signed him to a minor league deal and he got a callup for the rest of the season by the middle of July. He was not good in 13 starts for them. He signed a minor league contract with the Orioles, and ended up opting to become a free agent when June rolled around and he was in the minors. He signed a minor league contract with Washington who called him up a month later. The Nats gave him a minor league contract that rose to $1.5 million if called up the next season. He was never called up by June, so he opted for free agency. The Athletics gave him the same deal six days after he was released, and he was called up this time and made 13 lucky starts (3.33 ERA, 4.65 FIP) because of course Oakland magicked their way to 13 acceptable starts from a done Edwin Jackson. Last year, he signed with the Athletics, the Athletics sold him to the Jays where he gave the Jays an ERA of 11.12 in 28.1 IP, so they released him. The Tigers picked him up and he had a much better 8.47 ERA in 39.1 IP.

So that’s how you end up with a career like Jackson. You begin your career as a huge prospect, you fail miserably, your drafting team gives up on you. The team that traded for you now happens to be famously cheap so they trade you as soon as they can. He just so happens to get traded to a team that is trying to shed money and also just so happens to find a trade that involves you. Your next team sucks, and your next team after that sucks too. You hedge your bets on a one year contract that pays off beautifully into a 4 year contract. You pitch so badly you get released before year three is even over. Then a billion teams need an arm and well you’ll do and somehow that has happened eight times since you were so bad that you were released before year 3 of a 4 year contract. Edwin, I hope to see you on bad teams for as long as you can, just beating the odds by getting another chance in the majors and adding to your career MLB organizations.