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Is Alex Cobb the new Ubaldo Jimenez?

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Alex Cobb’s season is now done. Here is a look at some red flags leading up to Cobb and Jimenez’s free agent contracts and a comparison of performances through two years in Baltimore.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Baltimore Orioles Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday brought news that Orioles fans probably weren’t expecting to hear: Alex Cobb is going under the knife for surgery that will end his 2019 season after only three starts.

As Mark Brown noted yesterday, this probably doesn’t have an impact on the club’s rotation in 2019. Sadly, that was not expected to be the case entering this campaign. After signing his contract in Baltimore very late last offseason, he rebounded from a miserable start (6.41 first half ERA) to post quality numbers (2.56 second half ERA) before trouble with blisters ended his season. His strong performance down the stretch and completion of a full spring training gave us the impression that Cobb was ready to be a veteran anchor of the 2019 team, despite reports that Mike Elias would be willing to eat some salary in order to trade him. Now his season has come to an end thanks to a femoroacetabular impingement (hip issue) after three starts and 12.1 innings. In that limited time, his ERA was 10.95 and his WHIP was 1.86.

I had been hoping that Cobb would get back on the field not so that he could help the 2019 Orioles win a few more games, but so that he could establish some sort of trade value. Another club taking at least a portion of Cobb’s salary off the books would have been a boon for the Warehouse. That is not to be, and Alex Cobb will complete his second full season as an Oriole on the injured list.

This unfortunate development will only increase the comparison between another free agent starting pitcher signed by Dan Duquette that didn’t work out so well: Ubaldo Jimenez. They were each signed to four deals worth $52M and $50M respectively. Both were very ineffective.

Cobb and Jimenez each had serious red flags when they signed, making their lack of success not entirely surprising. Jimenez’s velocity showed major signs of decline in the years leading up to his free agency following the 2013 season. His fastball averaged over 96 mph in each of his seasons in Colorado. In 2013, it averaged 92.9. That is part of the reason for his declining production in the years leading up to his time in Baltimore. He had ERAs of 4.68 and 5.40 in 2011 and 2012. It took an incredible 2013 second half (1.82 ERA) to bring his ERA that season under four. Duquette bit on the hot stretch and gave him a four-year contract.

Cobb underwent Tommy John surgery in 2015 at a time when his career ERA stood at 3.21. In his first full season after his operation (2017), he posted an ERA of 3.66 and a WHIP of 1.22. Unfortunately, 2017 showed regression in some underlying statistics from his best years (2013 and 2014). While his velocity was essentially the same post-surgery, his strikeout numbers dropped from 8.4 and 8.1 K/9 in 2013 and 2014 to 6.4 in 2017. His walk rate held steady, but he allowed about one more hit per nine innings. More of those hits left the park, as his home runs allowed per nine innings went from 0.8 and 0.6 to 1.1. A 2017 fielding-independent pitching of 4.16 suggests that Tampa Bay’s defense bailed Cobb out quite to the tune of half a run per game. Dan Duquette thought this was worthy of a four-year investment.

Once in Baltimore, Jimenez and Cobb took different paths to disappointment. Jimenez was typically healthy, topping 142 innings pitched in three of his four seasons with the O’s. He would scatter in some absolutely dominant stretches amongst his struggles to give us hope. But his ERA’s of 4.81, 4.11, 5.44, and 6.81 in no way justified the large contract. His WHIP during his time in Baltimore was nearly 1.50 and he walked 4.2 batters per nine innings during those four seasons.

Cobb’s problem has obviously been injuries. After having his season end due to blisters last season, he has been on the injured list three times this season. Last season’s second half shows us what he can do when healthy, but that hasn’t been the norm.

Through two seasons in Baltimore, who provided the O’s more value: Ubaldo Jimenez or Alex Cobb? Jimenez’s combined WAR during his first two seasons in Baltimore was 2.1 according to Baseball Reference and 3 according to Fangraphs. Each win above replacement that Jimenez provided in those two years cost the Orioles between $7.8M and $11.2M. Cobb’s combined WAR in Baltimore is 0.6 according to Baseball Reference and 0.8 according to Fangraphs. The Orioles have paid Cobb a total of $28M to gain less than a win above replacement. As awful as Jimenez was, he is actually on pace to outperform Cobb in terms of value.

Of course, Cobb still has two years left on his contract and can turn things around. Sadly, he probably won’t be part of the next competitive Orioles team. But Mike Elias said yesterday that the goal is to get Cobb ready for spring training 2020. Given Andrew Cashner’s likely departure, Cobb will fill the role as veteran starting pitcher. If he can finally avoid the injury bug and pitch well, Elias will relish the opportunity to trade him for anything of value before July 31, 2010.

While doing some aspects of his job very well, Dan Duquette was not very good at signing starting pitchers to multi-year contracts. Unfortunately, Mike Elias is tasked with finding a way to make Alex Cobb helpful to the rebuild. While that could happen and he could prove to be a better signing than Ubaldo Jimenez, we’ll need to wait until 2020 to find out.