In the end, Alex Cobb got the contract everyone expected. He just had to wait a little longer than he would have liked. At the start of free agency, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs predicted Cobb would get a four-year, $60 million deal. Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors predicted four years and $48 million. Sources report Cobb’s deal with the Baltimore Orioles will be four years at something close to $60 million.
What’s interesting here is that Cobb cashed in on a long-term deal while Lance Lynn and Mike Moustakas, the two other prominent late signings, had to settle for one-year deals. Moustakas’ situation is easier to understand given the situation at third base across the majors, but on the surface, there isn’t much difference between Lynn and Cobb. Both are the same age (Cobb is a few months younger), both had solid results in 2017 coming off Tommy John surgery, and both project to similar WAR for 2018 — 2.1 for Lynn via ZiPS, 2.5 for Cobb.
Yet Cobb gets $60 million and Lynn signed with the Twins for one year at $12 million (which at least allows him to re-enter free agency next season without being attached to draft-pick compensation). There are some underlying differences between them. While Lynn posted a 3.43 ERA with the Cardinals, his peripherals weren’t as good, reflected by his 4.82 FIP. Cobb, meanwhile, has had proven success in the American League East with the Rays, so it’s certainly understandable why he would be a more attractive choice for the Orioles.
How much will he help? Obviously, the Orioles needed rotation help. Before Cobb, the Orioles’ rotation depth chart listed Chris Tillman, coming off a 7.84 ERA, and Gabriel Ynoa, who had a 5.25 ERA at Triple-A. Cobb probably displaces Ynoa and completes a five-man group that also includes Kevin Gausman, Dylan Bundy and Andrew Cashner.
That still doesn’t project as a top rotation. Here are the updated rotation WAR projections from FanGraphs for the AL East:
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Red Sox: 15.8
Blue Jays: 13.5
That doesn’t even factor in that Bundy, Cobb and Tillman all have had serious health issues in the not-too-recent past. Why does the Orioles’ rotation project so poorly? Strikeouts. There were 149 pitchers last season who threw at least 90 innings. Here’s where Baltimore’s five starters ranked in strikeout rate:
Now, strikeouts aren’t everything. But they’re almost everything. It’s very difficult to do what Cashner did last year with the Rangers, posting a 3.40 ERA while averaging just 4.6 K’s per nine innings. You can do it with good defense behind you, a high ground ball rate and a little luck, but those three aspects rarely line up in consecutive seasons.
Of course, Cashner could up his strikeout rate. Cobb could rediscover his splitter/changeup, a pitch that wasn’t effective for him last year but was used with great success when he had a 2.82 ERA over 2013 and 2014. Tillman could be healthy. Bundy and Gausman may not have reached their full potential just yet.
So the rotation may not be a disaster and could even surprise. Still, you wouldn’t predict this group to outperform the Yankees’ rotation. Which puts a lot of pressure on the offense. Do you see the Orioles outscoring the Yankees? If you go position by position, you’d give the Orioles the advantage only at second base with Jonathan Schoop over Neil Walker. You can dream on Chris Davis having a bigger year, but he’s now had two straight seasons of declining production and was terrible in 2017. Maybe Tim Beckham is better than Brandon Drury. Even shortstop is more of a toss-up than you may think. Can you tell Manny Machado from Didi Gregorius from their 2017 numbers?
Player A: .259/.310/.471
Player B: .287/.318/.478
The Orioles did a good thing in signing Cobb to fill a weakness. On paper, however, they still look far short of the Yankees or Red Sox. They’ve surprised us before.