It's hard for a team to have a worse starting rotation than the Orioles did a year ago, when they had a 4.72 ERA from their starters for the season. This year's Orioles were up to the task of finding a way to be even worse than that, sinking to the worst starting rotation in the entirety of Major League Baseball, with a 5.70 ERA that is almost unfathomably atrocious even after having watched them do it.
This is the number one question facing the team this offseason, so much so that it's almost not even worth discussing anything else. Can the Orioles improve on that horrible starting rotation?
With all of Ubaldo Jimenez, Chris Tillman, and Jeremy Hellickson about to become free agents, and with Wade Miley's $12 million option for next season unlikely to be exercised, there will at least be the opportunity to see some new faces. That's one cause for optimism. The devil we don't know is unlikely to be worse than this.
On the other hand, before anyone goes and gets their hopes up that the O's might actually make a meaningful effort to improve next year's rotation, keep in mind that on Saturday morning, Roch Kubatko posted his usual daily article with the headline "Cobb figures to be too costly for Orioles." Some select quotes from that article:
It’s too big of a stretch to put the Orioles in contention for Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta. They’re the priciest free agents and it would take a drastic change in organizational thinking for the necessary dollars to flow. ...
The industry shares a curiosity over Alex Cobb’s market and the Orioles most definitely will be keen observers. He’s in the second tier of free agent pitchers, but likely will be out of their reach. ...
I’d like to see the Orioles made an aggressive play for him, but it’s hard to fathom them doling out the necessary dollars. Jiménez’s failures may have something or nothing to do with it. It’s still spending outside their comfort zone for pitching.
There are reasonable arguments that can be made against the Orioles pursuing Alex Cobb on the free agent market, starting with his road ERA of 4.72. If Cobb's 2017 success was predicated largely on conditions that only exist in the sterile environment of Tropicana Field, that doesn't speak well of the idea of signing him to pitch in Oriole Park at Camden Yards for half of his starts.
That's one thing. It's another thing entirely to read a reporter who writes for an outlet that's more than 80% owned by the Orioles offering the conclusion that Cobb "likely will be out of their reach." Maybe they will surprise Kubatko, and us, by doing something outside of that expectation.
Unless that happens, though, is there any point in bothering to pretend the Orioles are serious about improving their starting rotation? If it's not even November and the signal from the reporter from the team-owned outlet is that Cobb would be "spending outside their comfort zone," that tells us a whole lot.
It is a matter of simple math that if a team does not develop its own starting pitching, it will have to go outside the organization to get it. Developing Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman counts. Developing Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson doesn't count. Trading Steven Brault for Travis Snider, and Zach Davies for Gerardo Parra, doesn't help.
Whatever the cause of how the Orioles got here, the fact remains that they have just 40% of a starting rotation. Internal options are such that it's generous to assume that even one spot can be fulfilled from within for next season. The best way out of that hole is money, and what's more, it's money the Orioles should have available to spend, with something like $40-50 million free for 2018.
That's not to say that money spent on the rotation is automatically the answer to fixing things. One need look no farther than the Orioles to see that in action.
The $50 million given to Ubaldo Jimenez was an unmitigated disaster. An attempt to go a little cheaper than that, the $22 million given to Yovani Gallardo, was salvaged only somewhat by the Mariners deciding, for still-unfathomable reasons, to trade an actual baseball player with value for Gallardo.
Then again, these were the Orioles attempts to get bargains, to avoid spending market price for a top-tier or even second-tier pitcher. That Jimenez deal is the biggest the O's have ever given to a pitcher doesn't say much. They signed him late in the offseason they got him, after spring training had already started, with the idea that he was coming at a discount. Sometimes, you get what you pay for.
Not that big contracts are guaranteed to be the answer, either. The Tigers surely have regrets for the three awful years out of five in the five-year, $80 million deal they gave Anibal Sanchez, and more regrets still for the first two terrible years of the five-year, $110 million given to Jordan Zimmermann.
Stepping on a land mine like that would be crippling for the O's efforts to compete, especially when you consider there's already one potential anchor on the payroll in the Chris Davis contract.
There are risks with any contract. The risks of signing Cobb or Lance Lynn or whoever else in that second-tier are something that should be up for debate. But any argument that just starts with, "He's probably too expensive," before getting into many of the specifics about an individual player... well, that just makes it depressing to think about how the O's are going to try to fix a league-worst rotation.
In a comment on his own article, Kubatko explained his assessment that the O's are unlikely to spend on Cobb by noting that Cobb could reportedly get at least $70 million and that he can't see the O's spending that much. That's $17.5 million per year for four years. It is not a lot of money to spend if you want to sign a pitcher who you think will be good and have him on your team for multiple seasons.
If the Orioles are serious about improving their starting rotation for next year, it's going to cost them money to do it. The first sign that we are hearing about Cobb is that the Orioles aren't serious. Here's hoping that changes once the market actually opens up. Otherwise, the 2018 team will shape up to look a lot like this one.