Sunday, December 14, 2008

Edwin Jackson's Prospect History

One of the most common defenses of the Edwin Jackson acquisition that I have seen goes something like this.

"Edwin Jackson was one of the top prospects in baseball a few years back. This is a great chance to see if he can recapture that status."

At first glance, I don't buy that argument. For some perspective on the state of affairs when his prospect status was at its pinnacle:
  • The Tigers were just coming off of a 119 loss season.
  • Dontrelle Willis had just gone 14-6 in his rookie season, Miguel Cabrera had just emerged as the starting left fielder, and Pudge Rodriguez was an apparent leader. These three helped lead the Florida Marlins to a World Series title.
  • This was 163 home runs ago for Cabrera and 205 home runs ago for Albert Pujols.
  • Rick Porcello was starting his freshman year... of High School. Justin Verlander had just started his Junior year of College.
  • George W. Bush's approval rating was north of 50%.
If I haven't convinced you a lot has changed since the 2003-2004 prospect lists have come out, I probably never will. If you are willing to admit that this is a dynamic and ever-changing world, you have to at least consider that Edwin Jackson's stock may have fallen just a wee bit from those times. If you still aren't convinced, ask a Dodger fan. Still not convinced, head on over to Paul DePodesta's blog. While he's probably not allowed to discuss players on other teams, if Edwin Jackson had been all he was cracked up to be, there's a pretty good chance the blog would be in Dodger blue instead of whatever color the Padres are these days.

Edwin Jackson was a sixth round pick by the Dodgers in 2001, straight out of high school. After sitting the rest of the 2001 season out, Jackson was assigned to South Georgia of the South Atlantic League (Tigers' fans, this is the equivalent of West Michigan in the Midwest League) where he and Francisco Cruceta -- yes, that Francisco Cruceta -- were the anchors of their '02 starting rotation. Baseball America ranked him the 99th best prospect in baseball after that season, placing him square between Seth McClung and Nic Jackson.

It was the 2003 season when Jackson really started to make waves. Skipping high-A, he went to AA and didn't miss a beat, dominating the league and moving to the top of most people's prospect lists. There were some warning signs, however, in this AA domination. In 148 innings, Jackson did manage to walk 53 guys and post an ERA of 3.71. While those aren't bad numbers and his 157 strikeouts were impressive, they aren't the numbers of the top pitching prospect in baseball, especially at a pitcher's park like Jacksonville. This was a very impressive performance for a 19 year-old pitcher in AA. While the season in AA gained him attention, it was the September cup of Coffee that vaulted Jackson into the limelight. Specifically, it was his victorious duel with Randy Johnson on his Major League debut that is still remembered to this day by those lamenting what could have been. I will be quick to point out this game to those who want to pin their hopes on one cherry picked game in a player's past. While the season was an extreme success for Edwin Jackson, one has to look back with some hesitation. The slightly above average ERA and walk rate may suggest that he wasn't dominant in AA, and the MLB experience was just 20 innnings... not nearly enough to draw a meaningful sample. (You could make the same points about Matt Joyce, and it would be fair.)

After 2003, Baseball America ranked Edwin Jackson as the #4 player in baseball behind Joe Mauer, B.J. Upton, and Delmon Young and just ahead of Rickie Weeks, Alexis Rios, Kaz Matsui, Greg Miller, Grady Sizemore, and Prince Fielder. I'll get back to this list in a moment, because I want to go over the past five years of Edwin Jackson's career.

As great as his '03 season was, Jackson's '04 was as much of a disaster. Penciled into the starting rotation in the spring, Jackson proceeded to blow up in the spring and lose his spot. In AAA-Las Vegas, a tremendous hitter's environment, he was awful, posting an ERA of 5.84 and walking 55 guys in 91 innings. Nonetheless, injuries to the Dodgers' starting staff pushed Jackson into a spot starter's role in the summer. Upon filling in for Odalis Perez in July, he had to leave a game in the second inning with an elbow injury, yet started again five days later. No word on if Kevin Rand was consulted for this decision. It should come as no surprise that Jackson spent some time in July on the disabled list after this before heading back to Las Vegas for further struggles before a pretty brutal cup of coffee in September with the Dodgers. It was a year to forget for Edwin Jackson.

It was more of the same in 2005 for this enigma. Despite constant praise from his Major League manager Jim Tracy, Jackson just couldn't put it together in the minors, warranting a June demotion from Las Vegas back to AA Jacksonville, where he recovered somewhat. Unfortunately, it was more of the same in the late season call-up. Edwin Jackson was quickly becoming a flop.

With his biggest supporter, Jim Tracy, out of a job, the Dodgers shipped Edwin Jackson to Tampa Bay in a deal for relievers Danys Baez and Lance Carter. Clearly his stock had fallen hard, and very few players were in need of a change of scenery than Jackson. However, the 2006 season wasn't much different for Jackson. He struggled in AAA Durham before a complete lack of Tampa Bay pitching forced him into being completely overmatched to the tune of a 5.45 ERA in relief.

Jackson has been in the Majors for good for the past two years, but it was only because he was out of options and the Rays felt they would lose him on waivers. They simply didn't have any other pitchers to force him off the staff, either. This past year, Jackson stayed on as the Rays' fifth starter, but was clearly a notch below everybody else on the staff, only appearing in three games during the postseason, each in a mop up role. Jackson's improvement in his ERA and win totals were largely the results of improvements around him. The Rays' defense was upgraded from one of the league's worst to the league's best, and they were simply keeping runs off the scoreboard. While it appears that Jackson may have found himself, it is likely that he is the same middling pitcher that has frustrated the Rays, Devil Rays, and Dodgers for the past five years.

This post is much longer than I anticipated when I started writing, so I will save the rest for another post. The one question I want to address is whether or not we can expect a resurgance out of Edwin Jackson because of his former prospect status. We'll take a look at that later in the week.

14 comments:

Dan said...

Yeah yeah we get it. You don't like this trade, because you believe Matt Joyce can put up another .830 OPS without ever hitting a curveball. Or maybe you think he will start to magically hit the curveball, while Edwin Jackson won't ever hit the plate.

Maybe you should rename this blog to 'bitching about the tigers-thoughts.' It would seem to be more accurate.

andre said...

Dan,

who knows, maybe after 3 years of call-ups and send-downs and 2 years of MLB starts, Joyce will be able to hit the curve. in any case, we know that Jackson hasn't exactly distinguished himself in the same amount of time, let alone show himself to be above average as a rookie.

Jackson might pan out, and the Tigers do need pitching...but i think we paid high for him and that Joyce, if deemed surplus, might have gotten a better return than he did. the Tigers acted desperate and overpaid as a result. i don't see what the advantage was to doing the deal as soon as they did.

Eddie B said...

Dan, thanks for the great argument. I'll take those constructive words into consideration.

All I really wanted to do was take an honest look at Edwin Jackson's career, and I feel it's a fair assessment. He was largely awful from 2004 through 2007, and there are signs that his 2008 is a mirage. This is not about complaining about the Tigers, so much as being honest in an evaluation of the team's direction.

Dan said...

Eddie, just take a look at your posts this month....Renteria was a positive post.....Laird trade could end up like Casey and Neifi....Tigers will stupidly go with Sardinha at backup C....Tigers medical staff may have missed the ball on Everett....Tigers are stupid for looking at Parrish...Friedman screws Dombrowski....Tigers are stupid because they released Skelton because he's skinny....Lopez was a positive post...and now this post on Jackson, which is understandably negative, because you are looking only at his numbers. But you seem to ignore Joyce's nubmers since the league started throwing him the inside breaking pitch while falling in love with his pre-breaking pitch hot streak. It just has to cut both ways. It's your blog so you can do whatever you want, but for me it's become a bit of a drag to read recently...but again it's your baby.

andre....i'm not going to hold the fact that jackson got to the bigs a couple years earlier than joyce against him in my evaluations. obviously it's not good that he hasn't shown greater improvement, but everything i've seen and read say it's not unreasonable to think that it might come. i'd put the odds close to joyce hitting the breaking ball.

andre said...

Dan,

your point about Jackson coming up at a younger age is valid, and its the first time i've even hear it, so thanks. on the other hand, i'm not sure what you mean by Eddie "looking only at [Jackson's] numbers", what should he be looking at? i think its been widely explained why his W-L numbers and his ERA last season are misleading, so unless you're measuring Jackson in some other way, i'm not sure what you mean.

it could well turn out that the Tigers sold-high on Joyce, but if we want to "cut both ways" in evaluating this trade, you have to think that Joyce stands a better chance of adjusting his game if for no other reason that he hasn't yet shown that he can't. Joyce had less than half a season's worth of ABs, admittedly a small sample size, but even with a horrid September he ended up with similar production numbers / at bat when compared to the Tiger's other outfielders. its not a given that Joyce will make adjustments to the league, but considering this was his first real taste of the bigs, it makes sense to think that he's more likely to improve than Jackson. if he does make adjustments and Jackson continues his trend, the trade is a bust and we lose a lefty bat with some pop that can play plus defense at either corner.

Dan said...

andre, what you should consider is fastball velocity, fastball movement, slider tilt. these are edwin's strengths and they don't show up in the numbers because his control isn't good enough. but they are there, and there has been many a pitcher who has improved his control (just like there has been many a pitcher who hasn't, just like there has been many a hitter who has learned to hit the curve and those who haven't). this is all stuff you can't find on the internet or on a guys stats page, no matter how advanced the stats, so at some point you have watch the guy or trust that management has and has analyzed correctly.

i think the trade was even, i think joyce has a better chance to improve than jackson, but the payoff with jackson is much higher.

Eddie B said...

So I should try to be positive regardless of what I think of the team's decisions?

andre said...

Dan,

from what i hear, Jackson throws a hard fastball, but it has little movement (or ability to deceive the batter). i think this goes a long way to explaining why, despite his apparent strength, he can't get guys out. also, although his control has gotten better, his strikeouts have dropped just as much, leaving him with little actual gain.

it would be much easier for us to trust the organization scouts if it hadn't been for their non-ability to assess last years pitching staff (specifically Willis). we heard a similar line that the Tigers "liked what they saw" in him.

i don't think that DD is an idiot, so part of me is giving this trade the benefit of the doubt, but on the other hand, it isn't silly to be critical, and Eddie isn't wrong to raise some questions.

given what we know, this trade seems like somewhat of a gamble. however, given the state of the rotation, i agree with you that, although not as likely, the potential payoffs of a productive Jackson are better.

Dan said...

Eddie, my description was apt. The fact is, right or wrong, for whatever reason, your posts have been negative. I was kind of thinking you hadn't realized this and pointed it out in a sarcastic way, because i love sarcasm, but i don't think you care that you've been negative, and you care even less what I think. good for you.

andre, i think his movement is more than fine on the fastball, but he gets behind and has to throw it and he throws it belt high....even if it has movement, if a guy is sitting on belt high cheese he can hit it.

regarding the scouting of willis, robertson, renteria. i guess i assume DD is competent enough to fix the problems, or at least not rely on the same scouting or thought process for future decisions. and i just don't think in this case you can make an assessment of jackson without watching him or at least having something else besides a cursory scouting report or analyzing his past numbers. they don't really apply with guys that have room to physically improve.

andre said...

Dan,

i wont argue that scouting has its uses, and good scouting tends to be a crucial element to a teams long-term success. but in Jackson's case, unless the scouting explains why despite all of his supposed strengths he can't find control or get guys out, i think you have to weigh it against the results.

i haven't seen him pitch, so all i have to go by are the stats. i also think we're hearing different things about him, i'll post the link if i can find it, but like i said earlier, what i read was that his fastball lacked enough movement to deceive.

i don't have an axe to grind regarding Jackson or DD in general, i'm just a little puzzled by the move. over time, unless scouting is giving additional context to explain the gap between Jackson's potential and his performance (which i haven't heard yet, and please if you're hearing stuff that i'm not, link away), i'd just assume go by what the stats tell me.

i hope he does well though, they could use the arm.

Lee Panas said...

I think most young players have a tough time hitting MLB breaking pitches. I actually thought Joyce made good progress this year. He came up quicker than expected and did pretty well. I like his chances of continued progress next year.

Jackson throws hard but straight. Billfer wrote a good article about that on TigsTown. This is why his strikeout rate is so low. That low k rate combined with a high rate is not encouraging.

I understand the reasoning behind the trade (they need cheap pitching help) but I think they moved too fast. I believe Joyce has a better chance to have a good career than Jackson. Jackson may have a higher upside but I think his chances of reaching it are slim.

I don't think Eddie is negative. He is critical and he he backs up his criticisms well. Frankly, I think it's difficult not to question a lot of the moves the Tigers have made over the past 15 months.

Lee

Jason said...

This trade was an absolute steal for the Tigers. Jackson started 32 games for the AL pennant winners with an above-average ERA at age 24. He is past the injuries/growing pains of most young pitchers from ages 20-23 (when most aren't even in the majors yet). We could have a solid Javier Vazquez/Ervin Santana-type starter for several years.

Joyce is a fungible corner outfielder who runs hot and cold. We've seen him do 'heroic' things for the Tigers; we haven't seen Jackson do the same.

Advantage, Tigers. By a lot. I can't believe anyone would bash this trade.

andre said...

Jason,

there's these things called 'stats' and it usually helps to look at them before saying things like Jackson having had "an above-average ERA" in 2008...especially when it turns out the average ERA in the AL last year was 4.36 while Jackson's was 4.42 (http://www.baseball-reference.com/leagues/AL_2008.shtml).

a good deal of the up/downsides of the trade is speculative and we'll have to 'wait and see', but to say that "[Jackson] is past the injuries/growing pains" is a great deal harder to believe (let alone prove) than any of the criticism that has come up.

that the gamble might pay off (and if it does i think that Jackson will have been worth it), doesn't change the fact that its a gamble.

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