On the verge of entering 2018 with only one notable addition to a rotation that finished last in the majors in ERA a year ago, the Orioles have apparently landed the best free-agent starting pitcher remaining on the market.
According to Jon Heyman of MLB Network, Baltimore has agreed to a four-year contract worth close to $60 million with right-hander Alex Cobb. The deal has not been finalized and, of course, is pending a physical.
It’s a surprising development for an organization that’s been reluctant to give long-term contracts to starting pitchers since the abysmal four-year, $50 million deal with Ubaldo Jimenez that was signed in 2014 and finally expired last fall. Despite finishing with an awful 5.70 starter ERA that led to a last-place finish in 2017, the Orioles had only signed Andrew Cashner to a two-year, $16 million contract this winter to revamp the rotation while re-signing Chris Tillman to a one-year, $3 million deal in hopes of a rebound from his disastrous season.
Cobb, 30, just completed his first full season since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2015 and went 12-10 with a 3.66 ERA in a career-high 179 1/3 innings. His 6.4 strikeouts per nine innings marked a career low, but his 7.3 per nine rate after the All-Star break was right in line with his career mark, an encouraging sign as he moves further away from the procedure. He also had a career low 2.2 walks per nine innings in 2017.
In six major league seasons, Cobb is 48-35 with a 3.50 ERA in 115 career starts.
Having spent his entire career with Tampa Bay, Cobb is clearly familiar with the American League East and sports a career ground-ball rate of 54 percent, a number conducive to pitching at Camden Yards. His 47.8 percent ground-ball rate in 2017 was a career low that still ranked 19th among qualified major league starters.
Cobb relied heavily on a sharp splitter before undergoing elbow surgery, but he’s been much more of a two-pitch hurler since then, using his sinker to induce grounders and a curve fetching more success than ever before. It remains unclear whether he will regain the feel for the split as time progresses, but he threw it less frequently in August and September than he did early last season, according to Brooks Baseball.
With the free-agent market severely depressed this offseason, the Orioles giving Cobb such a hefty contract raises eyebrows, but pitching half of your games at Camden Yards and competing in the AL East aren’t exactly hospitable conditions for a cheap one-year deal to boost your value for next offseason. Since he rejected the Rays’ qualifying offer last November,
His addition hardly turns Buck Showalter’s club into division favorites, but a legitimate addition to the top half of the rotation creates a more realistic path to competing if other things go right for the Orioles. Cobb will join Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman, Cashner, and Tillman in the projected rotation whenever he’s able to get up to speed with his new club.
And he will now become one of only a handful of players committed to being in Baltimore after 2018.