Before Thursday, the Washington Nationals were a team preparing to go into spring training with a deep pitching corps. They were going to have a competition for the back end of the rotation and a tight bullpen race. But Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo looked at his starting staff and saw what he termed “an innings shortage.”
Stephen Strasburg will be on an innings limit; Jordan Zimmermann is coming off a limited season and hoping to throw 200 innings for the first time in his big league career; Chien-Ming Wang remains on the road to recovery from a major shoulder injury. But by Thursday night, with the addition of free agent right-hander Edwin Jackson on a one-year, $10 million deal, that shortage was no more.
In its place, a logjam of starting pitching.
“Out of the eight playoff teams last year, six of the eight had [at least] two 200-plus-inning pitchers on the team,” Rizzo said. “We felt that we had an innings shortage. This not only fixes the innings shortage it also gives us a quality standard that we feel can compete with any team in the division.”
Indeed, Jackson, who helped the St. Louis Cardinals win the 2011 World Series championship, solves that issue. He agreed to terms with the Nationals despite several reports that he had three-year offers on the table from other teams and, in turn, crowded a Nationals rotation already brimming with top talent. The Nationals will head to spring training with seven possible starting pitchers for their five-man rotation, and while reports swirled that they were aggressively trying for a trade, one Nationals official shot down that idea, saying it was a mischaracterization and there was “nothing imminent.”
“The more the merrier,” Nationals manager Davey Johnson said in a phone interview. “[Rizzo] keeps adding good arms. Whatever they want to do, I’ll make it work. That’s what spring training’s all about. It never hurts. I’ve had six great starters, I had it in New York, and it’ll all work out. You can never have too many.”
For now the Nationals will ascribe to that theory religiously and watch a competition unfold among Wang, John Lannan and Ross Detwiler for the fifth spot in the rotation — while keeping their options open for an opportunity to sort things out.
“We did not acquire Edwin Jackson to trade another starting pitcher,” Rizzo said. “If in spring training or before a deal comes up that we can’t pass up and positively impacts our ballclub we’ll certainly be open minded about it. … But I like the competition aspect of this. It’s going to be a lot of good pitchers out there in spring training this year and the best 25 guys will go north.
“From the start of spring training, when everyone talks about ‘You have too many starters,’ to the reality of the grueling major league season when you’re looking for starters, we feel that we have good depth and a great talent base.”
Jackson will join the Nationals’ rotation as the team’s projected fourth starter behind Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Zimmermann, and he’s long been on the Nationals’ radar. Rizzo was interested in trading for him in 2010 and noted Thursday that he’s personally scouted him in the past. One of the top free agents on the market this offseason after finishing 2011 with a 12-9 record and 3.79 ERA, Jackson was an integral part of the St. Louis Cardinals march toward a championship after a mid-season trade from the Chicago White Sox.
A hard-throwing 28-year-old, Jackson will be entering his 10th major league season with his seventh new team. Despite a fastball that averaged 94.5 mph in 2011 and a no-hitter on his resume, Jackson has been traded six times, including twice on July 27, 2011 in a three-team trade that brought him from the White Sox to the Cardinals. His travels aside, the Nationals still see a significant amount of “upside” in Jackson — who was thought to be a future Cy Young candidate when he burst into the major leagues on his 20th birthday with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
It’s part of why, in conversations with agent Scott Boras about 10 days ago, when the Nationals learned Jackson would be willing to accept a one-year deal, “the term and the value of this pitcher was too good to pass up,” Rizzo said. The team will, however, attempt to make a few changes to Jackson’s delivery.
A different pitcher out of the stretch than he was in the windup in 2011, Jackson was significantly better with runners on base, leading some scouts to conclude that he could perhaps hide the ball better. When Jackson pitched from the windup, opposing batters had a .338 average and .390 on-base percentage. From the stretch, with runners on, he held hitters to a .239 average .292 OBP and a slugging percentage nearly .100 points lower.
“We feel that there’s certain tweaks we can make to his delivery that will make it more difficult to see,” Rizzo said. “We’ve got some ideas that we’ve mentioned to Edwin, and he’s very receptive to them. Pending him passing the physical, we’ll introduce them to him and see if we can gradually implement them and see if it improves his command and his deceptiveness. The stuff is there. The power is there. And [he’s] a terrific character guy, makeup guy, another guy with a World Series ring and a guy we feel really good about having on the club.”