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Jacksonmania Can Wait
2004-02-22 08:54
by Jon Weisman

At least they haven't given him a nickname yet, like Dr. K.

The repeated statements by Dodger manager Jim Tracy that the 20-year-old Edwin Jackson will be a point in the starting rotation pinwheel raise questions, despite Jackson's memorable debut victory over Randy Johnson and his 2.45 ERA (163 ERA+) in four rookie appearances last season.

Jackson had a 3.70 ERA in AA ball last season, a mark I'm fairly certain that even Andy Ashby could have achieved. Even with all the promise and hallowed intangibles in the world, Jackson doesn't necessarily deserve an offseason upgrade from coach to first class.

That's not to say I don't see the arguments for making a Jackson No. 5.

He has the strikeout pitch, averaging 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings with Jacksonville and 7.8 with Los Angeles.

And it's nice to see Tracy not use the relatively meaningless competition of Spring Training instead of real game competition from the previous season to judge a player.

By essentially giving Jackson the spot now, the Dodgers remove the pressure for him to prove himself, while still testing him to see if he can pitch in the spotlight.

However, there is another approach the Dodgers could have taken with Jackson that I think would have been more effective. They could have said - more than that, they could have insisted - that the young righty would start the season on the major league roster, but in the bullpen, not the rotation.

They could have had him be like Wilson Alvarez 2003, waiting in the wings, instead of pushing Jackson out like an overeager stage mom.

Jackson is certainly one of the top 11 pitchers on the Dodger organization and should be on the roster. But by placing him in the bullpen, at least in April, the Dodgers would avoid setting this young man up for a disappointment that could come despite everyone's best intentions.

Jackson would have time to ease into the season under the tutelage of Jim Colburn. He would avoid heavy early season innings that could fatigue him come September (and, with evidence growing that younger arms under stress are more vulnerable to long-term injury, put his entire career at risk).

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think Fernando Valenzuela was pushed into the Dodger starting rotation in February 1981, even after a 1980 September whose brilliance caught everyone off guard.

I'm not saying the world will end if Jackson is in the rotation now but out of it in May. Furthermore, scenarios could develop, of course, where the Dodgers don't have a choice but to make Jackson a starter right away. A trade of Odalis Perez here, an injury to an Alvarez, Hideo Nomo or Kazuhisa Ishii there, Darren Dreifort's ligaments and cartilage everywhere, and we're no longer talking about how quickly Jackson is starting, but how quickly the even younger Greg Miller could be.

No doubt, Jackson has talent. He could simply prove too good to hold back. But no one is too good to hold back in February.

By placing Jackson in the bullpen for now, by creating the opportunity for him to succeed, rather than creating the expectation for that success, the Dodgers would be choosing a quiet, prudent path that could be every bit as rewarding as the klieg-light red carpet walk past Joan Rivers' scorning, pulled-back eyes that they have now laid out for him.

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