Why Not Edwin Jackson?

Earlier today, we discussed the Marlins' desire to acquire a starting pitcher via trade. There are a lot of names available, but the Marlins have few assets to trade left once you factor out the team's starting position players. If the team is still interested in acquiring a solid starter to fill in the rotation, it may need to consider non-trade options.

Luckily, there is a free agent option available to the Marlins in free agent righty Edwin Jackson. A couple of weeks ago, we discussed Jackson a bit in terms of a potential option for the Fish, but since that time the Marlins have mentioned that they have no interest in the free agent. What is intriguing is that the Marlins have had some interest in similar pitchers, and Jackson may be just the type of pitcher the team can acquire given their limited resources.

Similarities Abound

It is worth mentioning again how similar Jackson is to two pitchers the Marlins either considered or are considering for their rotation. Compare Jackson's numbers to those of free agent acquisition Mark Buehrle and possible trade target Wandy Rodriguez from 2009 to 2011.

Player IP K% BB% ERA FIP Avg WAR
Mark Buehrle 629 11.9 5.3 3.91 4.12 9.9
Wandy Rodriguez 591 2/3 21.7 8.1 3.36 3.73 9.3
Edwin Jackson 623 18.5 7.9 3.96 3.90 8.7

Sure, Jackson appears to have been the worse of the three starters, but he is also the youngest of the three at age 28. Over the last three seasons, the difference between Jackson and Buehrle has not been much more than a third of a win per season, which is worth about $1.5 million in annual salary difference in the free agent market but is likely to make a slight impact over the life of a three- or four-year deal. In terms of play, the difference is likely going to be small enough to be impossible to notice.

With such similarities, it is odd to hear that the Marlins have no interest in Jackson when they clearly have shown interest in Buehrle and seemed to interested in trading for Rodriguez. Skill-wise, Jackson may be better going forward than either of those two pitchers given his age. The only qualitative difference between these three pitchers is their handedness; of the three, only Jackson is right-handed. Buehrle is currently the staff's only lefty, so perhaps the Marlins are interested in acquiring another left-hander to combat the biggest lefty bats of the National League East.

However, I previously determined that the difference between a lefty and an equivalent righty starter versus left-handed hitters at around the fourth or fifth starting position is so minuscule that the team would do well to not worry so much about it. Considering that the last Marlins starter will see somewhere around 300 left-handed PA, the average difference between that pitcher (a guy like Rodriguez, for example) and an equivalent right-hander (a guy like Jackson) will be around 10 runs, not counting what the team would be giving back in platoon splits against righty batters.

The Cost of Acquisition

With the platoon aspect not being so significant and the difference in player skill having been determined as very similar, the decision between a trade candidate and signing Jackson really comes down to acquisition cost. In terms of cost of acquisition, the Marlins have fewer appealing options than Jackson, who would cost the least.

Not much has been swirling around Jackson regarding his price, but based on the evaluation of FanGraphs readers and what Buehrle got from the Marlins earlier this month, it would not surprise anyone if Jackson picked up a four-year contract worth somewhere around $52 to 54 million. While Jackson was a firm third-place option in the free agent market this season, he was not so far behind as to earn significantly less than Buehrle. At that sort of contract, Jackson would likely be earning fair-market value.

The benefit of Jackson over the other trade options is that those players available for trade would require additional resources in the form of talent to acquire. Even a player like Rodriguez, who is likely slightly better than Jackson but will be under a fair-market value contract for the next three seasons, would require talent in return for his services. The Astros would at least be looking for a castaway talent like Matt Dominguez, and even if Houston decides to pay some of Rodriguez's contract, how cost-effective would a move like this be compared to not risking any talent and signing an equivalent player in Jackson? While Rodriguez would not only cost fair-market dollars and a player asset, Jackson would yield similar production for the simple cost of money.

This factor is once again emphasized on a team like the Marlins that lacks homegrown talent available for trade. Last season, the Atlanta Braves traded many prospects for Michael Bourn, but the prospects they did trade were not among their best. However, it would not surprise me if the young players the Braves did trade would have rated similarly to the likes of Brad Hand, Chad James, or Rob Rasmussen, three of the better Marlins pitching prospects. The Bourn-to-Rodriguez parallel is not quite fair, but it is important to note again that if the Fish were forced to trade two or three players of the caliber of those guys, they would be taking from a farm that has little depth to begin with. The team simply lacks the talent to acquire players via trade, which makes a free agent signing with only money on the line more and more attractive.

It is intriguing that, with all of the Marlins' desires to improve their rotation and their complete lack of depth, the team is still hesitant to spend the money on a talented enough pitcher like Jackson. The available options in the trade market are either way out of the Marlins' league in terms of assets required to acquire or are not significant upgrades over simply signing Jackson. If the Marlins ultimately make a trade, I would imagine it would be a low-cost, upside move for Carlos Zambrano, because that fits the team's current need for a fifth starter. But if the team is looking to pick up a two-win upgrade over their current fifth starter options, their best bet is likely to turn to Edwin Jackson instead of the trade market.

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