SURPRISE, Ariz. – At first glance Sunday, right-hander Edwin Jackson appeared to tighten up the battle for the Cubs’ fifth-starter job a mere week before the season opener.
But despite Jackson’s strongest start of the spring Sunday against the Kansas City Royals, expect the embattled, $52 million pitcher to end up in the bullpen with left-hander Travis Wood taking the last starting job in the opening rotation.
“At the end of the day I’m here to help the team win in any way I can,” said Jackson after pitching around three errors (one his own) to get through 4 2/3 scoreless innings, allowing just one hit and a walk (three strikeouts).
“The last couple years haven’t been great, but I know what I’m capable of doing, and I know my abilities. It would definitely be fun playing here with the guys and winning a lot of ballgames and helping contribute to winning a lot of ballgames, whatever my role is.”
Maddon suggested earlier this month that Wood and Jackson both could earn a piece of the rotation, even with the top four spots locked up by Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Jason Hammel and Kyle Hendricks.
Maddon suggested Sunday that idea, floated by the front office, had been scrapped.
“It’s more likely that someone’s going to win it outright,” Maddon said Sunday.
Wood, the favorite entering camp, hasn’t done anything to indicate he hasn’t held serve. Maddon also told Wood he’ll be a first-option pinch-hitter if another starter has a short outing – an all but impossible role for a reliever.
If anything, Wood could flip-flop with Hendricks and wind up in the fourth spot to prevent the only two lefties in the rotation going back-to-back.
“Jack’s had some really good starts, the [previous] one not so good,” Maddon said. “Woody, I think for the most part’s been pretty consistent.
“We’re just trying to piece it all together based on people’s strong points and weak points. We have not finalized anything yet.”
Even Jackson knows, “It’s not going to be judged off one start.”
He downplayed any disappointment that might come with being sent to the bullpen.
“At this point in my career, I don’t know if there’s anything that can happen where I’ll be disappointed unless I just get hurt and can’t play the game anymore,” said Jackson, who has two years and $22 million left on his four-year contract. “Other than that, I’ve faced any kind of adversity we can probably think of.
“And I’m mentally strong to be able to do whatever I have to do to help the team win.”
The Cubs have explored trade possibilities for Jackson since last year, to little avail.
By the time they put together winter roster plans that included signing free agents Lester and Hammel, internal team discussions involving Jackson focused on his potential as a relief pitcher (limiting pitch options and theoretically creating a different adrenaline level for short assignments on short notice).
Assuming Wood joins the rotation and Jackson joins the bullpen (and assuming continued progress by Lester after his dead-arm stretch), the Cubs’ pitching roster is basically set, barring injury the final week of camp.
Maddon said he expects a 12-man staff, which would mean a seven-man bullpen. Closer Hector Rondon and returning late-inning setup guys Pedro Strop, Neil Ramirez and Justin Grimm all would be in with Jackson and newly signed lefty Phil Coke (a veteran who has pitched well; and whose competition, Zac Rosscup, has options).
Despite struggles this spring by veteran newcomer Jason Motte, there’s no indication he won’t make the club as the other bullpen guy.
“I’m not worried about him,” Maddon said. “I think his velocity’s real good. … I’m not often into mechanical adjustments, but I really think with him, [pitching coach Chris Bosio] picked up on [a mechanical flaw], and I’m eager to see his next time out.
“I think it’ll get better.”