How much will Alex Cobb help the Orioles?
The Orioles surprised fans today with a deal that will reportedly bring starting pitcher Alex Cobb to Baltimore. The deal is believed to be for 4 years and 57 million dollars, with some of that money being deferred. Cobb still needs to pass the physical but that doesn’t sound like it will be an issue, even if it is the O’s performing the physical. Per the new CBA rules, the Orioles will also surrender their third highest pick in the upcoming draft.
(You can discuss this on the BSL message board here.)
Early in the offseason, I was a big proponent of signing Cobb. My desire to sign him has gone down since then and if there was a deal to get a deal done, I didn’t want to see it go beyond 4 years. Cobb just turned 30 years old this past October. Thus far in his career, he has pitched 700 total innings in 115 starts. He has a career ERA of 3.50. His FIP is 3.68 and his xFIP is 3.62. His career K rate is 7.33, his career BB rate is 2.62 and his career HR rate is .84. Those are all pretty good numbers and that is before mentioning his career 2:1 GB/FB ratio. Over his career, he has a strike% of over 64% and he is missing bats at about a league rate for a starter. Overall, when you look at his career numbers, you see a guy who has been a very good pitcher. You see someone you would love to have in your rotation. The problem is, will you get that pitcher going forward?
Cobb had Tommy John surgery back in 2015. He missed most of 2015 and 2016. He was able to log 5 starts in 2016 and then a career high 29 starts last season. The good news is that the general consensus is that the second full year back from TJ surgery is usually when they are getting back to normal. He also saw his velocity increase last year from 2016, which was also a nice positive. The issue with Cobb is that he has some peripheral stats that could be telling us a decline is in order. PECOTA predicts a 4.72 ERA for Cobb this year. I don’t agree that it will go that high but something that begins with a 4, instead of a 3, is very likely IMO.
As I said, Cobb logged a career high 29 starts last year. He also logged a career 179.1 IP as well. He averages 6 IP per start over his career, which is a better than average number. Despite that, he has never shown he can be a durable 32-35 start, 200 innings guy. Now, you can argue that the O’s aren’t paying him to be that pitcher and that would be a fair point but it’s also fair to point out that we shouldn’t expect much more than 180 innings from him. I am not going to harp on what he did in 2016. It was 5 starts and 22 IP. That isn’t any kind of a sample size to even discuss, so let’s just ignore those numbers. However, we did see some potentially disturbing trends in his ’17 stats. Prior to his surgery, his K rate was never below 7 and had gone over 8 twice (at least in his full seasons of starting). In 2017, it was 6.42. His HR rate, which he never saw get over .82, jumped to 1.1 last year. His GB/FB ratio, which was well over 2 before his surgery, was down to 1.58 last year. His LD% was up, albeit it was close to 2013 levels. His FIP was 4.16 and his xFIP was 4.24. Both of those numbers saw big jumps in 2017. He also had a career worse 11.7% swingstr%. That is well below average for starters and easily the worst of his career. The contact rate against him was the highest of his career. His outside of the zone swing% was down as well.
None of these are great trends but the counter is that it is just one season. The concern though, is that it was the first full season since a surgery that could have made him a lesser pitcher than the one we saw before the surgery. The good news is that the control was impeccable. He had a BB% of just 5.9% last year, although he had the lowest K% of his career (at least in a full season).
I can see why PECOTA would see a jump in his ERA. Again, I don’t agree with the size of the projected jump, but I would be mildly surprised with a season similar to last year. He pitched in a more pitcher friendly park as well, so that can’t be overlooked as he moves to Camden Yards.
Another aspect to wonder about is how will him not having a Spring Training affect him. According to Dan Connolly, he will start the year in the minors. I have to think he doesn’t pitch for the Orioles until at least late April. After that, we will see how long it takes him to get into the groove. Cobb won’t have time to really work on things, like most pitchers do this time of the year. He is going to have to ramp it up and get his arm up to speed. The question becomes, how quickly can he do that and how big of a help will he be for 2018?
Last year, my biggest gripe with the offseason was that the Orioles knew Chris Tillman was a problem as late as December and they didn’t bring in better depth. This year, they brought back Tillman and he hasn’t looked good. Now, I expect him to be on the OD roster, but the addition of Cobb puts him on notice immediately IMO. If Cobb isn’t going to pitch in Baltimore for another month or so, that should allow Tillman to get 2-4 starts. The question is, if he is throwing up softballs, do they cut their losses with him immediately or do they keep sending him out there? You can argue that the Os don’t have other great options, but Nestor Cortes has done enough to warrant a look and I do not think the Orioles will offer him back to NY. He will be a lefty in the pen and if Tillman isn’t performing, he could be in the rotation. The same can also be said for Miguel Castro. This signing brings you in real depth and depending on the pitcher you get, you have just gotten a 2/3 starter on a pretty good contract.
How much does this move the needle for the Orioles? That will obviously depend on how good Cobb is but I would say that the signing improves them by 2-3 wins. The Orioles are going to go as far as the players on the current roster allow them to go. They need Davis and Machado to bounce back. They need to see guys like Schoop and Mancini continue to be good. They need the bullpen to be solid until Britton gets back and hopefully Britton will be Britton again. Most of all, they need 3 of their starters to be really good. When I say really good, I think they need 3 of them to combine for a sub 4 ERA and 550ish IP. If you can get that, you have a chance. I am of the belief that, barring major injuries, that Houston, Cleveland, NY and Boston will be in the playoffs. That leaves the O’s fighting with teams like Toronto (who I think is very underrated heading into the season), Minnesota, LAA and Sea. The AL is tough and while I do think this move is a help, I still don’t see the Orioles as anything more than the 7th or 8th best team on paper as they enter the season.
Signing Greg Holland would improve things further.
We will see how this effects the long term of the team. Right now, barring any injuries, trades or awful performance (I am looking at you Cashner) we know 4/5 of the rotation for 2019. We know that the Orioles will have somewhere in the neighborhood of 60M on the 2019 books (that is taking away the deferred money owed) with probably another 35-40M in arbitration owed to around 6 players. Add in guys that will be pre-arbitration (which there will be several) and we see a lot of room on the books for a certain SS to still be signed to a long term deal. The one aspect you can’t overlook about this contract is that it does give the O’s a potentially pretty good rotation for the next few years and that could help sell Machado on staying. It’s not likely but it is something worth looking at.
Finally, I would like to say that even if I don’t love the 4th year, I am glad the Orioles did it. I didn’t think Angelos would allow a 4th year after what happened with Ubaldo Jimenez. Reading through the twitter accounts of all the local writers today, they are surprised by that too. It’s always fair to say the Orioles will have to overpay for starting pitching and they only gave him 9M more than the Cubs were willing to give him and with some of the money being deferred, it may not be any difference in present day money. You could argue that since he signed so late, that they should have gotten him cheaper but again, the O’s have to overpay. So, I would like to applaud the organization for not allowing one bad signing to get in the way of making a move that they believe will improve the team.