Leyland: Jackson ‘can be a horse’

By Lynn Henning
Updated: December 14, 2008

LAS VEGAS — Jim Leyland was still somewhere over the eastern United States this past Wednesday when the Tigers added a bit of altitude to their pitching staff by trading for 25-year-old, right-handed starter Edwin Jackson.

“He can be a horse,” the Tigers manager said by phone Thursday from his home in Pittsburgh. “He’s a big, strong kid.

“I remember him a lot (from the 2008 season). He can overpower you. The guy won 14 games. We like that.”

Leyland’s words came 24 hours after he had sat in a ballroom at the Bellagio Hotel. His face, sporting a newly grown white beard, seemed to darken as he talked about the Tigers’ 2009 rotation.

“Right now, I’m not so sure about that,” Leyland said, 10 hours before a trade that brought Jackson to Detroit and sent outfielder Matt Joyce to Tampa Bay was made public.

He mentioned Justin Verlander and Armando Galarraga, and the wait-and-see status of Jeremy Bonderman, “but after that I’m not sure,” Leyland said.

The trade for Jackson, one that had neither been rumored nor expected as the Tigers focused on relief pitchers, put significantly more certainty into Detroit’s front-line pitching for 2009.

It was the most substantive deal nailed down by Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers president and general manager, during an aggressive week for the Tigers at baseball’s Winter Meetings.

In addition to Jackson, the Tigers acquired the catcher they desperately needed: Gerald Laird, a 29-year-old defensive specialist with a better bat than perhaps most fans appreciate.

They also are completing the paperwork that will make Adam Everett the team’s new shortstop. Everett, 31, isn’t a hitter by any means (career .246 average, 34 home runs in eight seasons), but he should be a major ally to Detroit’s pitching staff, which in 2008 could have filed non-support charges against the infield’s left side when Brandon Inge wasn’t stationed at third base.

It leaves one issue to be resolved before Leyland’s group checks into Lakeland, Fla., in eight weeks for the beginning of spring training: the bullpen.

A major reason why relief pitching, which was a priority heading into this week’s meetings, is unresolved could be simply explained as the Winter Meetings closed up shop Thursday. It became the most difficult of all pursuits for the Tigers.

Starting pitching, catching, shortstop — as always among the most difficult in baseball to address — were easily handled compared with Dombrowski’s bullpen safari.

“It’s something we’ll keep an open eye on,” Dombrowski said late Wednesday night, after the Jackson trade had been announced. “But it seems a lot of them (back-end relievers) have already signed or been traded.”

Francisco Rodriguez, Kerry Wood, J.J. Putz — the blue-chip relievers who could have solved the Tigers’ closer void — ended up elsewhere. The Tigers “inquired” about Wood, Dombrowski said, before Wood signed with the Cleveland Indians.

Putz was the focus of serious trade talks with Seattle that melted down after the Mariners wanted too much from the Tigers (likely Joyce, Jeff Larish and a minor league pitcher), which left them to ship Putz to the Mets.

Rodriguez was never within Detroit’s budget. The Tigers are now talking with new vigor about the possibility that Fernando Rodney could become their 2009 closer. They’re banking on several beliefs there:

Rodney has the brand of pitches custom-made for a ninth-inning shutdown role: power fastball, nasty change-up — when he throws strikes. They believe he also will be healthy, as opposed to the start of 2008, when tendinitis kept him from pitching during spring training.

They also theorize that Rodney will be inspired to have a prize-winning 2009 season for one overwhelming reason: money. He becomes a free agent next autumn and will understand that the more his wicked pitches cross the plate, the higher the free-agent meter should run.

Dombrowski, though, will press to beef up the bullpen as he leaves Las Vegas and returns to Detroit. As he said Thursday, the quest could extend through spring training. Personnel surpluses and deficits have a way of flip-flopping for various teams during spring camp as injuries and surprise performances by farm prospects change a team’s roster profile.

“It’s still a long way between now and April 6,” he said, referring to Opening Day, at Toronto.

Dombrowski’s reputation for acting rapidly to fill needs was only burnished during four days at the Bellagio. The Laird deal was completed last weekend and announced Monday morning. The Everett deal was leaked Monday and will be final when medical reports are complete.

The trade for Jackson was a surprise only in that the Tigers appeared to be limited in what they could offer to acquire a powerful starter.

The Rays, however, were a baseball rarity — a team that had excess pitching. The Rays were looking for left-handed power and solid defense for right field. They found their target in Joyce, 24, who had caught the eye of numerous teams that had pushed Dombrowski to consider trading him.

Ultimately, after multi-player, multi-club trades had been considered — with Joyce squarely in the middle — the Tigers and Rays settled on Joyce for Jackson.

The Tigers could not resist. Jackson throws a fastball that regularly cruises at 96-97 mph. He has a hard sinker and a serviceable change-up. He can have his issues with the strike zone (77 walks in 183.1 innings in 2008, 88 in 161 innings in 2007), but the Tigers believe he is settling down and settling into a groove as a long-term power starter.

Jackson is no late-arriver in terms of his reputation. He was a renowned Dodgers prospect, considered one of the top-tier pitching prospects in all of baseball, until control issues sent him to Tampa Bay as part of a 2006 trade for, among others, reliever Danys Baez.

“We helped our pitching depth a lot,” Dombrowski said Thursday, acknowledging that he was “very happy” with the deals made this week.

Losing Joyce was another matter. The Tigers liked Joyce immensely: his power, his persona. But they have enough outfield depth on the 25-man roster and in the minors (Clete Thomas, Wilkin Ramirez, Casper Wells) that they never flinched when Jackson became available.

Dombrowski is hoping for one more stroke of good fortune: a relief pitcher who becomes available as suddenly, and as affordably, as Jackson emerged.

“We might be closer to another move that helps our club,” Dombrowski said, not offering details, but implying that this week’s shopping trip will last as long as it takes to find one last item.