As we sift forlornly through the charred remains of the Orioles’ 2018 season, licking our wounds at the club’s historic futility, it’s hard to believe it was only seven months ago that the O’s fancied themselves contenders enough to dish out a four-year, $57 million contract for a free agent pitcher.
It feels like a different era. It was a different era. The present-day Orioles are nearly unrecognizable in comparison, having whittled down their roster to a threadbare crew rife with untested youngsters and no-name filler. Their GM and manager have lost their jobs, with the coaching staff expected to follow suit. Through it all, though, that expensive pitching contract remains on the books for three more years, serving no particular purpose for a rebuilding ball club.
That contract, of course, belongs to veteran right-hander Alex Cobb, whom the O’s signed March 21, eight days before the start of the regular season. It seemed like a reasonable idea at the time. The Orioles, having held on to Manny Machado and all other pending free agents last winter, had made it clear they were going all-in for 2018. Their pitching staff, however, was a mess, with Chris Tillman (coming off a 7.84 ERA in 2017) penciled in as their fourth starter. A series of horrible outings in spring training by Tillman and the Birds’ fifth-starter candidates convinced the O’s to pull the trigger on Cobb, the most prominent hurler still on the market that late in the offseason.
For the Orioles to spend so boldly on a free agent pitcher was surprising. They had just gotten out from under the disastrous Ubaldo Jimenez contract, a four-year, $50 million pact for which he’d given them a 5.22 ERA. Few thought the O’s would be willing to go down that road again, albeit with a pitcher in Cobb who’d been more reliable than Ubaldo in his career.
The early returns on Cobb were, well, Ubaldoesque. Having signed too late to get any work in camp, Cobb hurried to get himself in game shape behind the scenes. He started the year throwing side sessions at extended spring training and later worked out with Double-A Bowie, although he never actually made any minor league starts because of some nonsense about not wanting to use minor league baseballs.
The Orioles brought him to the majors two weeks into the season on April 14 (perhaps out of desperation, since they were already 5-9 at the time). In hindsight, Cobb probably should’ve spent more time facing actual hitters before returning. His O’s debut in Boston was an unmitigated disaster: 3.2 innings, 10 hits, eight runs (seven earned). His next outing in Detroit was equally awful: 3.1 innings, 10 hits, seven runs (five earned). In his third start, Cobb made his Camden Yards debut as an Oriole...and gave up another 10 hits and five runs to his former team, the Rays. Three starts into his O’s career, Cobb had been torched for 17 earned runs and 30 hits in 11.2 innings, striking out just four batters.
Full-fledged panic struck Birdland. Cobb was the next Jimenez — no, worse than Jimenez. Another costly, four-year contract was destined to become an albatross around the Orioles’ neck.
But the story wasn’t over for Cobb, who had a long history of success in the AL East, having gone 48-35 with a 3.50 ERA in six seasons with Tampa Bay. Sure enough, he eventually found his footing with the Orioles. After his three disastrous outings in April, Cobb tossed four quality starts in six games in May.
It was around midseason that Cobb really hit his stride. From July 13 to the end of the season, Cobb pitched to a 2.59 ERA, including a five-start stretch in August in which he worked six or more innings and allowed two or fewer runs in each. He became, for all intents and purposes, the Orioles’ No. 1 starter. He finished the season with a 5-15 record and 4.90 ERA — numbers that look bad until you remember how much worse they’d once been.
What was the key to Cobb’s revival? It wasn’t just that he finally got into a regular routine after his abbreviated spring. No, his success hinged on the return of his signature pitch, the split-changeup. That’s his dipping, diving putaway pitch that served him well in his early years with the Rays. Cobb had struggled to get the same movement on the pitch since his 2015 Tommy John surgery, but over the course of 2018, the weapon slowly made its way back into his arsenal. Finally, Cobb was coming up aces.
Because these were the 2018 Orioles, though, something had to go wrong. Heaven forbid an Oriole be allowed to finish the season on a positive note! In Cobb’s case, his September was torpedoed by a blister on his pitching hand. He had to leave his Sept. 11 start against the A’s after two innings, then after waiting 12 days for the blister to heal, he made his triumphant return to the mound Sept. 23...and was forced out of the game after four pitches. That’s how Cobb’s season ended: with an outing in which he didn’t even officially face a batter.
Alex Cobb’s inaugural year in an O’s uniform brought a horrendous start and a disappointing finish. In between, though, he showed why the O’s were willing to make such a major investment in him. For two or three months, Cobb was the Birds’ best starting pitcher, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him get the ball on Opening Day in 2019.
At this point, Cobb and his contract don’t provide much benefit to the Birds. The Orioles are going to be a terrible team for the remainder of his deal, and while he could be dangled as trade bait, he likely won’t bring much value in return.
Still, if he can maintain his command of his split-changeup, he could give O’s fans something worth watching every fifth day. And at least he won’t be the next Ubaldo Jimenez.