Opening Day is only nine days away and the Orioles have made another addition to their starting rotation after all. Yahoo’s Jeff Passan first reported that the last remaining “big” free agent pitcher, Alex Cobb, was close to signing a deal with the Orioles. Within a couple of hours, FanRag’s Jon Heyman reported an agreement had been reached that is believed to be for four years and close to $60 million.
Of course, that agreement is assuming that Cobb, who had Tommy John surgery in 2015, passes the dreaded Orioles physical. It would be a public relations nightmare if it reared its ugly head at this point, but you can never rule it out until it’s passed.
There are plenty of people out there in Birdland who have been clamoring for Cobb for much of the offseason. He’s “only” 30 and has spent the entirety of his MLB career already pitching against AL East competition, compiling a 3.50 ERA over 700 innings.
Cobb looks immediately better than any of Mike Wright Jr., Rule 5 pick Nestor Cortes Jr., Miguel Castro, or Gabriel Ynoa. In that sense, the Orioles must sign him and they have always needed to sign him. They are going through with what they seem to believe is a plan to compete in the 2018 season. That plan is better with Cobb than without. There is no other way.
Excitement about signing Cobb is lower from yours truly than those across Birdland. While Cobb has kept a low walk rate, just shy of 6% of batters last year, his strikeout rate has dropped since the Tommy John surgery that cost him all of the 2015 season and most of the 2016 season.
Maybe it means nothing that he went from about an 8 K/9 pre-surgery to a 6.42 K/9 in the 2017 season. That could be a one-year aberration, or it could be the Orioles adding yet another pitcher with a dipping strikeout rate - along with Andrew Cashner - to their starting rotation, putting even more on the high-stakes roll of the dice they’re making in the 2018 season.
The other thing that makes me nervous about Cobb is that, while he had an overall 3.66 ERA that we would have liked very much to have in the 2017 Orioles rotation, that included a 4.72 ERA outside of Tropicana Field.
The Orioles are in a position where they have had to talk themselves into Cobb, so they have to ignore stuff like that and hope that it doesn’t mean anything as he transitions to having half of his games pitched at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
When this was still just a rumored signing, one big burning question was how much would it end up costing the Orioles? Initially, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported that the Orioles and Cobb have been talking about a deal “in the range of three years and $50 million.” However, he followed that up to say he had been told it wasn’t accurate, and sure enough, a fourth year and more guaranteed money made its way into the contract.
The fourth year is certainly a surprise given all of the time that was spent earlier in the offseason hearing about the Orioles refusing to go more than three years on a pitcher’s contract. Whether that was because of lingering Ubaldo Jimenez-related skittishness or some other reason was never clear, but it’s now clear that stance was more of a failed negotiating tactic than any kind of strongly-held principle.
This brings up another one of the Dan Duquette free agent pitching bugaboos, namely that he has waited all this time for a “bargain” without actually getting much of a bargain at all. The MLB Trade Rumors projection for Cobb at the outset of the offseason was four years and $48 million.
Despite signing in late March, he could still significantly exceed that total guarantee! That’s good for Cobb, and if Cobb is good, or even just OK, for the Orioles then it will probably be tolerable.
I do have to wonder what exactly Cobb was looking for over the last month while everybody else started signing for him to now be “settling” for $60 million. The four years and $60 million is right about what former Fangraphs writer Dave Cameron had projected for Cobb. Taking until March 20 to agree to the terms that “everyone” expected all along is weird. Well, the Orioles are weird, so in that sense it’s not a surprise.
There is also the question of when Cobb will actually be able to pitch. By the time Cobb actually takes the physical, there will likely be less than one week to go until Opening Day. The Orioles need their fifth starter on the sixth game of the season. It seems like that would be a stretch for Cobb to be ready to start a game then.
Cobb should be better than whoever would have been the fifth starter without him, mind you, but the late signing would seem to push him there by the calendar if not by expected talent. We may be in for some Wright yet.
Another factor to this signing is that under the new rules for draft pick compensation, signing Cobb, who rejected a qualifying offer from his former team, the Rays would cost the Orioles their third-highest draft choice in this June’s draft. That would be their second round pick at #51 overall.
If Cobb is OK, O’s fans aren’t very likely to miss that draft pick. If Cobb is bad, the signing will be a disaster for a lot more reasons than just the lost draft pick. Let’s hope we don’t have to worry about it.
This article has been updated since first publishing to reflect Cobb going from “reportedly close” to “reportedly in agreement.”