The Nationals scooped up a late-winter bargain when they signed righthander Edwin Jackson, 28, to a one-year deal worth $11 million. Jackson, who was the second-best starting pitcher on the free-agent market, found himself short on suitors after starting the off-season hoping for the kind of five-year deal that A.J. Burnett and John Lackey signed in recent years. His loss is the Nationals' gain. Adding Jackson and bumping incumbent fifth starter Chien-Ming Wang projects to make Washington three wins better, pushing them to the fringe of the NL wild-card race.
That Jackson was available reflects what a strange off-season this has been. While the very top of the market—Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Jose Reyes, C.J. Wilson and Mark Buehrle—got paid, many free agents, particularly pitchers, found themselves going hat in hand. Closer Ryan Madson ended up in Cincinnati on a one-year deal worth $8.5 million. Francisco Cordero, hitting free agency after five straight 30-save seasons, was only able to find a one-year, $4.5 million deal with the Blue Jays. Francisco Rodriguez, another potential closer, didn't even bother; he accepted arbitration with the Brewers rather than cast his lot in free agency. Righthander Roy Oswalt is still looking for a landing spot.
Veteran hitters have it even worse: Vladimir Guerrero, Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui and Derrek Lee remain unsigned. Casey Kotchman, 28, had the best season of his eight-year career, hitting .306 for the Rays, and settled for a one-year, $3 million deal with the Indians. Tampa Bay snapped up Carlos Pe√±a for a year and $7.25 million—after he made $10 million with the Cubs in '11.
We're seeing the evolution of the game. While experience is still valued, it's not something teams are willing to pay for, not when they can likely get the same production with more upside from younger talent. One of the first lessons of the sabermetric era was that talent is not distributed normally, and that the further down into the pool you go, the easier it is to find replacements. So rather than spend $4 million for a DH whose best days are behind him, teams will give playing time to someone making closer to the minimum.
The best way to spend cash is on stars, and while this year's batch is all gone, the 2013 free-agent class looks impressive. As of right now it will be headlined by starters Cole Hamels, Matt Cain and Zack Greinke, with Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli and B.J. Upton among the best position players. Those players, and others like them, will get paid. But they will be the only ones.
SLIGHTLY OFF BASE
The Nationals' rotation will be much improved in 2012, with the addition of Jackson, the trade for Gio Gonzalez and a full season of Stephen Strasburg. But the team hasn't addressed its most glaring weakness: a lack of OBP, particularly at the top of the lineup. Washington was 12th in the NL in runs last year and 12th in OBP, and it hasn't added anyone who will help that figure rise. Most problematic are the top two spots in the lineup, where the team combined for a hideous .285 OBP. Hoping that shortstop Ian Desmond (.298) and second baseman Danny Espinosa (.323) improve their on-base skills isn't much of a plan. The Nationals need to use their pitching depth to trade for a centerfielder who can bat atop the lineup. Otherwise, the money spent on starting pitching will just mean they lose games 3--2 instead of 4--2.
DILIP VISHWANAT/GETTY IMAGES (JACKSON)
JACKSONIAN ECONOMICS The Nats' new righty (with the Cards in 2011) should be a bargain: As measured by FIP (fielding independent pitching), he's been better the last three years than the Marlins' Buehrle.
MITCHELL LAYTON (GONZALEZ)