Alex Cobb’s Patience Actually Worked

Here, I thought it virtually inevitable that Alex Cobb would settle for something similar to the Lance Lynn contract. The pitchers have similar ages, strengths, and profiles, and both Cobb and Lynn happen to have turned down qualifying offers. A week and a half ago, Lynn signed with the Twins for a year and $12 million, after spending the offseason aiming much higher. In my head, I figured that would be Cobb’s fate, too. There are worse things. Yet Cobb has emerged with something much stronger, something more lucrative. Seemingly despite the odds, Cobb now has more or less the contract he wanted all along, agreeing to terms with the Orioles for four years and $57 million.

In the bigger picture, it’s not surprising, since Cobb was expected to get something like this back in December. In the smaller picture, it is surprising, given how the market played out. And it’s additionally surprising, given the Orioles’ reluctance to sign pitchers to long-term deals. I don’t think this was ever the likelihood, which helps to explain why it took so long in the first place. But for Cobb, he’s got a home, in a familiar division. And for the Orioles, they’ve patched another rotation together, after appearing shorthanded. While they might be the East’s worst team, we’ve heard that before. They’re going to give this another shot.

It’s not like it’s Cobb who deserves the credit here. At least, not the bulk of it, when it comes to discussing the actual terms. Maybe it was just a stroke of luck, I don’t know, but this is a heck of a turn for Cobb’s agent. The Beverly Hills Sports Council — specifically, Dan Horwits — didn’t seem to really have any leverage. Certainly not any more than Lynn’s agent had. Still, the Orioles came around, maybe even bidding against themselves, for all I know. I know that the offseason will actually end when Greg Holland finds a contract, but this is something of a palate-cleanser, for anyone who felt like the market turned sour. Here’s a middle-class free agent who ultimately *wasn’t* disappointed.

The way Cobb tells it, the Orioles were persistent all offseason, which Cobb appreciated. They always made him feel wanted, in a market where teams were increasingly critical. Now, news of this signing came out on March 20, a week and a half away from opening day. If Cobb and the Orioles were enthusiastic about one another, this would’ve happened months ago. Based on the timeline, maybe Cobb’s side was holding out for more money, or another team. Things ended up where they ended up. Cobb’s going to help the Orioles try to push for the wild card.

Just in terms of personnel, the Orioles’ rotation overhaul has been impressive. At the start of the offseason, they had only Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman. Now their rotation is rounded out by Cobb, Andrew Cashner, and Chris Tillman. There are reasons to be skeptical about all of them, but it’s at least much better than nothing. It no longer feels quite like a fantasy to envision the Orioles in the hunt. One can assume the bullpen will hold. The lineup is at least going to mash its dingers. While the Orioles are going to be nobody’s favorite, they can play on the fringes. Provided they can forget about the Yankees and the Red Sox, they might only have to keep up with, say, the Blue Jays or the Twins or the Angels.

The situation looks worse after this year. Among other critical players, Manny Machado is expected to leave. And while the Orioles’ farm system isn’t hopeless, it’s not considered to be among the best. The organization doesn’t look to have such a bright future, which is why this is a somewhat weird fit. You’d think that, in theory, Cobb would work best on a team within a multi-year window of contention. The Cubs used to be a strong suitor, and that made sense. The Orioles make less sense, but that doesn’t mean they make no sense. Plain and simple, Cobb is a better option than most of their pitchers.

Especially this offseason, there’s so much focus on money. Specifically, there’s so much focus on how much money owners are willing to spend. For some people, the more rational free-agent market has been something to celebrate. For others, any big player contract represents a victory. My own sense is that the Orioles didn’t need to go this far. I don’t think they needed to give Cobb $57 million. But it’s always about what else that money could mean, right? Last year, the Orioles had an opening-day payroll of about $164 million. This year, they’ll be around $140 – 145 million. Payroll is still going to be down, even with Cobb around. And the only long-term deal on the books, Cobb aside, belongs to Chris Davis. Chances are, the Orioles are soon going to get younger, which means they’re going to get cheaper. Which means Cobb’s money won’t be an obstacle, even if he takes a turn for the worse. So this shouldn’t hurt so bad, even in the worst case. In the best case, Cobb makes at least 2018 more exciting.

Cobb is actually kind of tricky to value. Used to be, he was a quality starter with the Rays, with a marvelous split-change. Then Tommy John surgery cost him all of 2015 and most of 2016, and since Cobb has come back, that split-change hasn’t been good or consistent. Cobb, last year, leaned far more heavily on his curve, and that’s not a swing-and-miss pitch. Not like the split-change was. So, while Cobb is coming off a career-low walk rate, he also saw a strikeout dip, and fewer ground balls. Cobb might be able to rediscover his old signature weapon, as he puts the surgery further behind him. But the most recent version of Cobb was a sinker/curveball pitcher, who pitched to a surprising amount of contact. It’s not hard to see how this could go south, especially since Cobb doesn’t have a clean medical history.

But of course, if the split-change returns, then peak Cobb could return. And while ligament replacement is never a good thing, Cobb should hold up for now. I’d much rather have Cobb than Cashner. I’d much rather have Cobb than Tillman. The market has taken a bite out of average-ish players, but for the Orioles’ rotation, average is a massive boost. Cobb has already improved the Orioles’ projection by multiple wins.

There’s one quick aside here I couldn’t in good conscience leave out. Cobb, again, turned down a qualifying offer. Because of that, the Orioles are sacrificing their third-highest draft pick, which was 51st overall. But while Cobb’s contract is worth $57 million, there’s also reportedly $20 million of that being deferred, which supposedly reduces the net present value to $47 million or so. Now, the Orioles have never been afraid of deferred money, but if I’m reading this right, the Rays get to benefit. Since Cobb signed for more than $50 million, the Rays are getting a compensation pick after the first round, slotted at No. 31. Had the Orioles just signed Cobb for $47 million, though, with no deferrals, then the Rays would’ve received a compensation pick after Competitive Balance Round B, which I believe would’ve been slotted at No. 75. The Rays’ compensation pick, in other words, is moved up 44 places, which would be valued at millions of dollars. The Orioles’ decision to defer so much money has given a division rival a little boost.

I think that’s really interesting. I don’t know if the Orioles thought about it. I don’t know if the Orioles even care. It’s not like that’s likely to make or break the Rays’ franchise. But the Rays have to be pretty happy. As recently as a few days ago, they couldn’t have expected to get a compensation pick so high. That’s good news for an organization that’s always trying to emphasize efficiency and the longer-term as much as possible.

So, the interesting quirk has to do with another team entirely. But it’s also just interesting to see Cobb land where he’s landed, for the guarantee he’s been guaranteed. For his sake, maybe it’s not as glamorous as signing with the Cubs, which had been rumored for so many weeks. Yet the Orioles were willing to pay the price, and they’re going to give this at least one more shot, while Machado is still a regular. I don’t know how much the Orioles can realistically hope to accomplish in 2019 and beyond, but they’ve defied the expectations before. They ever so stubbornly refuse to give up.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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5 years ago

The most surprising thing to me the years. It’s hard to imagine the Orioles couldn’t have signed Cobb on a 3- or even 2-year deal, especially this late. Then they would have been under the $50 million, and lost the lesser pick.

5 years ago
Reply to  scooter262

The value of the contract doesn’t affect the pick that the Orioles lose. It only affects the pick that TB gains.

5 years ago
Reply to  scooter262

3rd round pick. Pfffft. If the Orioles were not part of the collusion, and Angelos is not they type to take part, they could not know they were bidding against themselves. Also, time was marching and unlike so many teams, the Orioles actually want to Win

5 years ago
Reply to  scooter262

There is newfound optimism in B’more hun! P.A. Angelos has apparently turned things over to his son(s), and they are allegedly “loosening up” in regards to Pop’s “Iron Fist” style. Just in the last month, we have a new signing (Cashner) allowed to keep his ginger beard, free tickets to home games for kids who haven’t reached double-digits in years, and now this! I mean, if you were rich kids, and have a baseball team– wouldn’t it be fun to mess with the heads of the richer kids from up North?
Add to that Manny’s infectious jubilance after going back to Short, the expiring contracts of various old boys (not least the Buck & Dan Show), and it looks like they have a few months to show the world they still matter. Even if they ultimately don’t. It’s an even # year ferchrissakes (playoffs in ’12, ’14, ’16). Why the Buck not?!?

Aaron Judge's Gavel
5 years ago
Reply to  McPontiff

Given the terms of the contract, I was imagining that Cobb had Horwits assemble a team from The Beverly Hills Sports Council to perform inception on Angelos. But this explanation is a little simpler and makes sense too.