The story of the day, in what has been a slow news week, is Edwin Jackson signing a one-year deal with the Washington Nationals. There are plenty of people out there doing the smart, prudent thing by talking about what this means for the team in 2012, and how a crowded fight for the final spot in the Nationals rotation will work out. Unfortunately, that's not how my mind works. When I think about Edwin Jackson, the first thing I think about is September 9, 2003.
While Jackson has proven to be a durable starter with the occasional flash of brilliance, there was a time when he was arguably the best pitching prospect in the game. A sixth-round pick in 2001, Jackson drew more interest from scouts as a raw, but tantalizing five-tool center fielder, but his athleticism provided equal intrigue on the mound. After pitching and hitting in the complex league during his pro debut, he moved to the mound full time in 2002 and his stock began to explode. He put up a 1.98 ERA in 19 starts for Low-A South Georgia, which prompted a two-level jump to Double-A in 2003, where he struck out 157 over 148 1/3 innings as a teenager.
While the Dodgers were a winning team in September of 2003, they were still well behind a Giants team that would go to win 100 games. Thus, they rewarded some prospects with September looks, including Jackson, who made his debut in Arizona pitching against Randy Johnson, who was having one of his few bad years. It was Jackson's 20th birthday, and he was spectacular, allowing one run on a sacrifice fly over six innings while giving up four hits and striking out four. He was as good as advertised, and looked like a sure-fire superstar, but for whatever reason, the development just stopped from there.
To watch Edwin Jackson more than eight years after that eye-opening debut, he's still almost the exact same pitcher. He still parks his fastball at 94-96 mph while touching 99, but the slider is still a tease, as he mixes in true wipeout versions with ones that just sweep across the plate, while he's never gotten much velocity separation from his average changeup. He's lowered his walk rate at a slow but steady pace, yet is still an inefficient pitcher who averaged just under 100 pitches per six innings in 2011. He's hardly bad, he's just frustrating because he's not better. There's no obvious reason for his stagnation. We can talk about the age ranges for when players peak, but nothing is absolute, and some hit their apex early, and some late. Still, all I can think about right now is watching that 20-year-old in September of 2003 and thinking I was witnessing something magical.