A place where MLB teams have been looking at in the last couple of years is Asia, and specifically, for former major leaguers who have resurrected their careers there.
The Brewers pulled Eric Thames back from KBO in Korea, and he’s had two decent seasons in Milwaukee.
Last winter, the Cardinals signed Miles Mikolas, a righthander who had little success with the Padres and Rangers but had three good years for the Yomiuri Giants in NBP, to a two-year, $15.5 million deal. Mikolas won’t win the N.L. Cy Young Award but he will get votes for an outstanding season. It can be argued that had the Cubs signed Mikolas instead of Tyler Chatwood, not only would they have saved money but they probably would have won the N.L. Central.
So I’m hoping the Cubs have been scouting in Asia, particularly in Japan, for talent they could bring back to MLB. One pitcher who’s done quite well there is Jay Jackson, and if that name sounds familiar, it should. Jackson was the Cubs’ ninth-round pick in 2008 and actually ranked in Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects prior to the 2010 season (98th). But he never could harness his control and he was released by the Cubs after spring training in 2013 (the photo above is from spring training 2011).
Jackson pitched in the Marlins, Pirates and Brewers organizations before he was signed by the Padres in January 2015. He pitched in six games for the big-league Padres that year with middling results before they let him go at the end of the season.
He signed with the Hiroshima Carp of NPB before the 2016 season and has been pretty much lights-out as a reliever for them: 2.10 ERA, 1.131 WHIP in 175 games over the last three seasons, primarily as a setup man. He’s got a good walk rate (3.5 per nine innings) and strikeout rate (9.8 per nine innings).
This article from the Japan Times from last July shows a Jackson who has become thoughtful about his craft:
“It’s like a game of chess,” Jackson said of the late innings. “You’re just trying to get outs. You want to be aggressive and you want to work ahead, that’s the main thing. They’ve seen you, so you just try to make your pitches and just be confident in yourself. That’s the main thing, you gotta be confident.
“There’ll be games where you come into a big situation. You don’t want to be too amped up for it, because then you’re not hitting your spots like you’re supposed to, because you’ve got too much adrenaline or you’re kind of nervous about the situation, and you make a mistake and the game’s over.”
And Jackson has tried to emulate two other Americans who have been successful in NPB:
“Sarfate, by far. Him, and Mathieson too,” he said, mentioning the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks’ Dennis Sarfate and the Yomiuri Giants’ Scott Mathieson. “Just the demeanor they have on the mound when they’re pitching. Especially Sarfate. You see him pitch, and he’s calm at all times. He knows what he has to do. He goes out there, he gets his job done. He’s confident and comfortable in every situation.
“You saw it in the Japan Series last year, he comes in throwing three innings in the last game and dominating. He’s not worried about anything, nothing fazes him. That’s from experience and knowing that with the work you’ve put in, you’re going to get the job done. That’s how I try to approach everything that I do now.”
It sounds like Jackson has learned quite a bit about pitching in his three years in NPB. He turns 31 in a couple of weeks and could be an excellent addition to the Cubs bullpen, and signing him to (for example) a two-year deal likely wouldn’t be too expensive. Jackson made 115 million yen in 2018. At current exchange rates that’s about $1.028 million. Jackson turns 31 in a couple of weeks, so a two-year contract for around $5 million would seem reasonable. (Sarfate and Mathieson have also been lights-out in NPB, but might be too old to come back to MLB. Sarfate turns 38 next April; Mathieson will be 35 next February.)
Here’s some video showing Jackson’s pitching form with the Carp:
Other teams are finding useful talent in this kind of player — a former US minor leaguer who’s had success in Asia. This obviously isn't a precise match for the Mikolas signing, since Mikolas is a starter and Jackson a reliever. Still, I think there's value here and the Cubs should give this a shot and sign Jay Jackson.