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How much better does Alex Cobb make the Orioles?

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If the O’s are going to make a playoff push, they will need to lean on an improved starting rotation.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

It took all winter, but the Orioles finally have some semblance of a major league starting rotation. Ignore the years and money on the deal; signing Alex Cobb is a move for the present. With Manny Machado, Zach Britton and possibly Adam Jones headed for free agency after the season, the O’s needed to win now. Adding Cobb makes that a more realistic possibility.

The struggles of Baltimore’s 2017 rotation are well-documented. They had the worst ERA (5.70) of any MLB unit while tossing the third-fewest innings (846.0), issuing the fourth-most walks (352), allowing the second-most home runs (159) and the third-highest batting average against (.280). It was a mess.

Luckily, two of the worst performers from that rotation, Wade Miley (5.61 ERA, 4.66 xFIP, 0.8 WAR) and Ubaldo Jimenez (6.81 ERA, 4.52 xFIP, 0.1 WAR), are gone. Chris Tillman (7.84 ERA, 5.87 xFIP, -1.0 WAR) returns, but with a much shorter leash and the pressure of several in-house candidates ready to take his spot if the opportunity should arise. Common sense says that the O’s starters can’t help but be better this season, but that still doesn’t mean they will be “good”.

Dan Duquette, Brady Anderson and the Orioles brain trust have gone out into the free agent market this winter and looked to improve on Miley, Jimenez and bad Tillman by replacing them with Andrew Cashner, Cobb and good Tillman. Going based off of projections found on FanGraphs, the current trio would seem to be a modest, yet noticeable, improvement on the outgoing group.

Orioles 2018 starting pitching projections (Steamer)

Player ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Player ERA FIP xFIP WAR
Cobb 4.82 4.76 4.51 1.7
Cashner 5.41 5.35 5.2 0.6
Tillman 5.7 5.7 5.46 0.1
Projections based on Steamer system Statistics from FanGraphs

Orioles 2018 starting pitching projections (ZiPS)

Player ERA FIP WAR
Player ERA FIP WAR
Cobb 3.77 4.03 2.5
Cashner 5 5.19 0.8
Tillman 5.3 5.21 0.7
Projections based on the ZiPS system Statistics from FanGraphs

Based on the WAR totals from earlier, Miley, Jimenez and Tillman were worth a total of -0.1 wins in 2017. This year, depending on which projection system you prefer, Cobb, Cashner and Tillman are expected to be worth between 2.4 and 4.0 wins combined. If everything else in baseball stays exactly the same (the O’s had a 75-87 record in 2017), that would have this club pushing for third place in the AL East with 77 to 79 wins. Yay?

The pitching, on paper at least, should be better than last year, but the offense remains essentially unchanged. Accordingly, FanGraphs’ overall projection reflects just that with an expected record of 78-84, tied with the Rays for fourth in the division and well outside of the playoff picture.

PECOTA projects just 70 wins for the O’s, but that does not include Alex Cobb in the equation. Trying to throw bias away for a moment, that feels low even without the latest addition to the team, but that’s not a surprise. This team has had an adversarial relationship with projections for years now.

The most immediate benefit of adding Cobb is that it means Mike Wright will no longer be a regular member of the rotation. Cobb will begin the season in the minors in order to build innings and Wright could get a start or two in that time, but a full season, or even a full month, of Wright in the rotation would have been tough to swallow.

Wright, now 28 years old, has been given a few chances already to prove himself as a starter in the big leagues. Across 105.1 innings, the right-hander has a 6.32 ERA, .283/.360/.522 slash line against and a .374 weight on-base average (wOBA) against. He profiles better as a middle relief arm, where he can feature his above-average fastball and only face opposing hitters one time.

The hope inside the warehouse must be that bringing in more steady starting pitchers will have a domino effect on the rest of the team. More quality innings from the starters means more rest for the best arms in the bullpen, which could allow for more effective innings from the relievers when they are called upon. It’s not an idea without merit, but neither Cashner nor Cobb are exactly the “workhorse” types.

Cashner has had shoulder issues in the past and only threw 166.2 innings last year, averaging just under six innings per outing. The 179.1 innings that Cobb tossed last season were the most of his career and he missed all of 2015 and most of 2016 after undergoing Tommy John surgery. However, the Orioles have a notorious physical process that is usually correct when it comes to pitchers (see: Grant Balfour, Yovani Gallardo). If they passed both of them, they are likely healthy, but don’t expect regular seven-innning performances from the pair.

Based on projections and how we all understand baseball to work, Cobb is not a cure-all. He is an above-average starting pitcher that can only influence one out of every five games. As long as he remains on the field, he should be a decent contributor and will add a few wins to this team that they likely wouldn’t have gotten without him.

But Cobb does not magically transform the Orioles from a cellar dweller to a playoff contender. That responsibility will still fall to the feet of the same players that it has throughout the recent renaissance of the O’s.

Machado will need to recreate what he did after the all-star break last year for an entire season. Jonathan Schoop will have to follow up a career year with another solid showing. Trey Mancini needs to avoid a sophomore slump. Mark Trumbo and Chris Davis need to hit DONGS and little else. And the bullpen will need to lock down late-inning leads.

Cobb is a nice piece for this team, and he may even be able to push them back over the .500 hump this season. In the American League, which sent an 85-win Twins team to the playoffs last year, that could be enough to make them buyers at the deadline. But this club still needs a lot more to go well around him for the Birds to be considered a legitimate threat in the crowded AL East.