It can be easy to think of a team without much hope of competing for a playoff spot as being a team without much pressure to succeed. That’s often the philosophy for rebuilding teams. If a young player is struggling, it’s okay. Expectations are low. There’s no dire need to win to keep up with the Yankees or Red Sox or anyone else. The focus is on the future, kid, and the job is yours, so relax and play loose out there.
On this particular rebuilding team, however, someone will be facing a good amount of pressure. And it’s someone who will be one of its oldest players.
Alex Cobb is 32, and before he turns 33 in October, the heat will be on for him to put a long-awaited successful season at Camden Yards under his belt. A payday, a good trade return, perhaps even an extended future as a major league pitcher, all of that and more is hanging on Cobb having a bounce-back spring and summer this year.
Cobb has two years of a four-year contract with the Orioles behind him. He’s due $14 million this year and $15 million next year to round out a four-year, $57 million deal, and suffice it to say, he’s been...well, let’s just say “underwhelming.”
To recap: Cobb came to the Orioles three years after going 10-9 with a 2.87 ERA in Tampa Bay and one year after going 12-10 with a 3.66 mark, and has since given his new team a whole lot of nothing. He went 5-15 with a 4.90 ERA in 2018, then got three starts into 2019 with a 10.95 ERA before the Orioles saw all the red flags and had him get season-ending surgery on his ailing hip.
When the surgery was announced, it was also stated that Cobb would be a full go by March. Which is good. Because, boy, the team could use him.
Start with the product on the field. Dylan Bundy is gone, Andrew Cashner is gone (we think), and without those two and their 258 collective innings pitched there is a big, big need for someone to provide an anchor for the rotation, eat up innings and give manager Brandon Hyde someone he knows can go out every fifth day, make it into the sixth inning and give what is sure to be a busy bullpen this year a reset.
Can Cobb be that? He...could be able to. Before last season, he had started 25 or more games in three of the previous five seasons, with Tommy John surgery costing him all of the 2015 season and most of the 2016 campaign in the middle of that stretch.
The question is whether he’ll pitch like someone who deserves that responsibility. In his first three months as an Oriole, Cobb was 2-9 with a 6.75 ERA. It’s one thing to be able to rack up innings, it’s another to pitch well enough while doing so that you’re not negating the value of your durability. In other words, what good is your ability to show up and pitch if you’re hurting the team while doing so?
A return to form for Cobb, however, could help the Orioles most in the front office. Mike Elias and Co. would like nothing more than for their $29 million man to start pitching and dealing like an ace on a losing team. Trade interest goes up, suitors begin calling the warehouse, and while the Orioles wouldn’t get much in exchange, they’d nevertheless be able to spin a deal that has been a mistake into a return. The sooner Cobb becomes the pitcher he was, the better that return would be.
So Cobb can help the Orioles in a big way, but he can also help himself. In addition to setting himself up for a chance to join a competitive team’s playoff push (as Cashner did last year), Cobb can set himself up for a decent next contract when his current deal expires. If he’s able to bounce back, show that his injuries are far behind him and resemble the pitcher he became in Tampa Bay, he’ll boost his market.
He’ll be 34, so a long-term commitment or bank-breaking investment isn’t realistic, but 36-year-old Cole Hamels just got $18 million to pitch for the Braves this season. Hamels’s resume dwarfs Cobb’s, obviously, but the point is to show that a good number is still within reach for a pitcher in his mid-30s.
Pressure, though, comes not just from the benefits of success, but also from the consequences of failure. And with Cobb, those consequences are there. Granted, he has another year under contract, so even if this year is a wash as well, he’d have a final crack at putting it all together.
But those prospects would take a hit with a poor 2020 season. If Cobb can pitch like a strong No. 2 or No. 3 starter for two seasons, without any major injuries or blown-up ERAs, he shouldn’t have much trouble finding a suitor at a good price down the road.
But if he’s in and out of the rotation, missing chunks of time, fighting through another injury-riddled season or just looking like he’s never been able to shake those surgeries from a statistical standpoint, then he’s a pitcher who’s been unable to handle the load of being a starting pitcher in four of the last six seasons. And that’s counting his poor 2018 season as one of the two exceptions.
And if he’s unable to bounce back in either of these two seasons, then his future in the majors gets cloudy.
The good news for Cobb is that he’s going to have every opportunity to prove himself and what he can do this season. There’s no red card waiting in his locker in Sarasota like in “Major League.” Alex Cobb is the de facto ace of the Orioles, and there’s reason to believe it’ll work. As bad as his first three months in 2018 were, his last three (3.13 ERA, .234 batting average against, .681 OPS) were pretty solid. He’s shown what he can do, and there’s reason to think he’ll show it again.
It’s certainly in everyone’s interest that he does.