Unless the Orioles act to significantly improve their starting rotation, there’s little point in spending much energy pretending that they have any hope of competing in the 2018 season. They are going to have to find that help from the outside, probably in the form of free agent pitchers. According to MLB Network’s Jon Morosi this weekend, the Orioles have interest in two of the second-tier free agents available: Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn.
Once you get past Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta, those are the next two best starting pitchers who will be available on the market. If the Orioles are serious about improving the rotation, they should figure out which of these guys is the best one to target and go get him without complaining about the price tag.
Morosi wrote that the O’s have a “slight preference” for the 30-year-old Cobb, given that Cobb has pitched his whole career, spanning six seasons, in the AL East. Having familiarity with the parks and some of the players couldn’t hurt, although the Orioles shouldn’t get too hung up on some kind of AL East mystique, either.
Lynn, also 30, had his six MLB seasons all with the Cardinals. Especially when considering that Lynn faced lineups with pitchers in them, it’s fair to say there would probably be a bit of a degree of difficulty increase in jumping from the NL Central to the AL East.
How much of a difference and what that’s worth is open for debate. As fans, we can only hope that the O’s internal debate on that topic is made with greater wisdom than the decisions to sign Ubaldo Jimenez and Yovani Gallardo or the one to trade for Wade Miley.
Both Cobb and Lynn are not that far removed from Tommy John surgery. Lynn missed the whole 2016 season after having the surgery in November 2015. Cobb didn’t pitch in 2015 and missed most of the 2016 season as well after having Tommy John in May 2015.
With that question mark on each one’s resume, both posted a strong 2017 season to launch into free agency. Lynn threw 186.1 innings for the Cardinals, with a 3.43 ERA and a 1.229 WHIP. Cobb’s was a good season as well. He had a 3.66 ERA with a 1.221 WHIP. There’s a whole lot more to figuring out who’s going to be a good pitcher in the future based on this year’s ERA, but after watching a crummy O’s rotation this year, the idea of a mid-3s ERA is certainly appealing.
Each received a qualifying offer from his former team and rejected it. That means for the Orioles to sign either, they would have to give up their third-highest draft pick, which right now would be their second round pick at #50 overall. That’s paying a price to sign Cobb or Lynn, beyond just the salary they will make. On the other hand, if their rotation stinks again next season, they will pay a greater price than that.
MLB Trade Rumors projects that Lynn will get a four-year, $56 million deal, while Cobb will get four years and $48 million. A price tag of $12-14 million per year is not a lot to get a solid pitcher... assuming both can continue to be solid pitchers as they cross into their 30s.
If you squint enough, you can find warning signs for any pitcher. Whenever I look at Cobb, his 4.72 road ERA in 2017 makes me nervous. What if his success is tied to pitching half of his games at Tropicana Field? Cobb also had a much lower strikeout rate in 2017 compared to before he had Tommy John surgery, dropping from an 8.1 K/9 in 2014 to a 6.4 K/9 in 2017.
Lynn’s case has some warts as well. He’s also experienced the strikeout decline, going from an 8.6 K/9 pre-surgery to a 7.4 K/9 in 2017. Is that a blip or the new normal? His home run rate nearly doubled - Lynn’s hardly alone in giving up more homers in 2017 - and there was even a slight increase in an already-high walk rate, with Lynn averaging 3.8 walks per nine innings in 2017.
What’s more, Lynn’s 2017 success came along with a career-low BABIP of .244. That could have been good luck that won’t carry over to Baltimore, though Lynn did have an increase in percentage of soft-contact swings, according to Fangraphs. Maybe it’s skill that would carry over... or maybe some AL team will quickly regret signing Lynn.
It’s worth noting that for both Lynn and Cobb, their fastball velocity was similar to what they were throwing pre-surgery. Whatever caused the decline of some peripherals this season, it wasn’t that they’re not capable of throwing the ball as hard as they used to.
Hopefully these are signs of genuine interest on the part of the Orioles and not their usual offseason or trading deadline pattern of being publicly linked to so-and-so good player and then ultimately settling for someone who is much less good.
About three weeks ago, MASN’s Roch Kubatko proclaimed Cobb “out of their reach,” which could yet prove true once every team registers its interest and the offered dollars start flying around. For now, at least, they’re still interested, which is better than pretending that Miguel Castro and Gabriel Ynoa can fill the holes in their rotation.