With the departures of Jake Arrieta and John Lackey from the Cubs starting rotation, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer find themselves with two spots to fill this offseason. This year’s starting pitching market offers a couple top-tier options like Yu Darvish and Arrieta, himself, as well as some high-upside, high-risk arms like Shohei Otani. But with an extremely deep free agent class coming up next offseason, the Cubs may not be inclined to play around in the deep end of the free agent pool and spend big bucks on Darvish, Arrieta or Otani this year. They may look to save their money. If they do, the best arm in that next tier of good-but-not-ace-material starters is probably Alex Cobb, a 30-year-old free agent who has played the entirety of his MLB career with the Tampa Bay Rays.
The Cubs have always seemed infatuated with Cobb, whose name has come up in trade rumors for years at this point, and his free agent status, coupled with his familiarity with Joe Maddon and new Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey make him an very plausible – maybe inevitable – target.
Position: Right-handed starting pitcher
2017 Stats: 3.66 ERA, 4.13 FIP, 4.06 DRA, 17.3% K%, 5.9% BB%, 3.0 WARP
How He Fits: The Cubs will enter 2018 with a pitching rotation that will be led by Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana, three pitchers with ace-level upside. With those three at the helm, the Cubs do not need to pull off a flashy, major signing or trade. Instead, they can focus on very solid pitchers, but ones who may not be “the guy.” A pitcher like Alex Cobb fits the bill.
Cobb broke into the majors in 2011 with the Rays and had a couple of nice seasons in 2011 and 2012 (1.1 and 2.7 WARP years, respectively) before really breaking out in 2013 (2.76 ERA, 3.38 FIP, 2.43 DRA, 4.4 WARP) and in 2014 (2.87 ERA, 3.25 FIP, 2.56 DRA, 4.6 WARP).
Cobb’s calling card is his extreme groundball tendency. In 2013, of pitchers with 100 or more innings pitched, Cobb had the fifth highest groundball percentage in baseball with a rate of 55.8 percent. In 2014, Cobb performed even better with a 56.2 percent rate, putting him fourth in baseball (of qualified pitchers).
That said, in 2017, his first full season back from his 2015 Tommy John surgery – more on that in a bit – Cobb’s groundball rate took a step backward as it dropped down to 47.8 percent, which for Cobb is underwhelming, but still put him in the top 20 in Major League Baseball. We know that the Cubs have an organizational proclivity toward pitchers who get groundballs (Trevor Cahill was, like, an integral part of the 2016 World Series team) so grabbing one of the better groundball elicitors in the game would fit with the team’s strategy.
On top of that, Theo Epstein has already discussed the desire to add strike-throwers, pitchers who don’t surrender a lot of walks, this offseason. Cobb would check that box as well as his 5.9 percent walk rate was good for 12th in baseball last season, as was his 2.21 BB/9 ratio.
And then there’s the added plus that Cobb appeared to continuously take positive steps forward throughout the 2017 season. Having pitched only 22 major league innings combined in 2015 and 2016, Cobb had fine results in the first half of 2017, pitching to a 3.75 ERA and 4.13 FIP to go with a 6.2 percent walk rate and a 15.8 percent strikeout rate. But Cobb’s second half numbers looked even better as he raised his strikeout rate to 20 percent and lowered his walk rate to 5.4. He was positively terrific in August and September, pitching to a 2.82 ERA, 3.16 FIP, 5.1 percent walk rate and 24.1 percent strikeout rate. That’s a pitcher who is setting up his impending free agency quite nicely.
As noted in a fantastic piece at Fangraphs by Travis Sawchik, it’s not valid to say that Cobb has returned to his pre-injury self. Though Cobb was an effective pitcher prior to his surgery and has been an effective pitcher following his surgery, he is achieving this new success in a different way. Most notably, he has dialed back on using the split-change that was so effective during the most dominant stretches of his early career.
In 2013, Cobb threw the split-change 32.72 percent of the time. In 2014, he threw it 37.72 percent. In 2017, though, Cobb dialed way back on the pitch, only using it 14.3 percent of the time. That rate also decreased throughout the year with Cobb throwing it 15.04 percent in the first half but only 6.02 in August and September.
As Cobb has decreased his usage of the split, he has begun throwing his sinker and curve (averaging 91.98 and 80.85 MPH in 2017, respectively) more and more. As Cobb became more effective throughout the year, his use of the sinker and curve picked up.
There’s even more fascinating stuff in the Sawchik article, so I actively suggest you take a look at it for an even deeper dive into the resurrection of Alex Cobb. But for now, let’s move on to…
Why It Won’t Work:
As we’ve explored earlier, many of Cobb’s results and peripherals are good. If you were to pick nits, you could make an argument that he outpitched his 2017 FIP and that may come back to haunt him, but for his career, Cobb’s overall ERA (3.50) has always been pretty in line with his overall FIP (3.68) and DRA (3.25).
A more pressing concern could be Cobb’s lack of strikeout stuff. Cobb has never been known as a true strikeout guy, averaging a 19.7 percent strikeout rate throughout his career. Cobb’s 17.3 percent strikeout rate put him solidly toward the bottom for qualified pitchers in baseball last season. But, as noted previously, his strikeout numbers took a bigger leap toward the middle of the pack in the second half.
Nonetheless, one more area of more concern would be Cobb’s hard contact rate, which, at 36.9 percent, placed him fifth in baseball in 2017. In an era where the ball flies quicker and farther than ever, tons of hard contact could be a liability. On top of that, hard contact pitchers don’t jive with the Cubs’ organizational preference toward pitchers who get high soft contact like Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester or Jake Arrieta. Cobb’s low 14.9 percent soft contact rate would render him more similar to John Lackey.
Moving past the numbers, there are some other roadblocks that could stop Cobb from winding up in Chicago next season. One of those reasons is his health. As previously mentioned, Cobb had Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in 2015, causing him to miss that entire season and the majority of the 2016 season. Yet, his 2017 performance and adjusted repertoire while bouncing back from the surgery may make this issue less significant. In addition to the Tommy John surgery, Cobb has been fairly often injured throughout his career. However, his two most notable other injuries – a 2011 surgery to repair a blood clot in his chest and remove one of his ribs, and a two-month recovery period after getting hit in the head by a line drive – are both relatively fluky and would not necessarily label Cobb as an injury-prone player.
So how much would teams value a guy like Cobb? Various offseason predictions have shown Cobb could receive anywhere from a moderate contract of four years, $48 million (from MLB Trade Rumors, predicting him to land with the Twins) to a more sizable contract around five-years and $80 million (from Jim Duquette at MLB.com, predicting him to land with the Cubs). Sports Illustrated, meanwhile, predicts Cobb winds up with the Dodgers but does not specify a dollar approximation.
From the Cubs’ perspective, they have some pretty big contracts coming off the books in 2018 as they are no longer on the hook for $16 million owed to John Lackey, $15.6 million owed to Jake Arrieta, $14 million owed to Miguel Montero and $10 million owed to Wade Davis. That leaves the Cubs with some solid salary space from which they could certainly find room for Alex Cobb. If Cobb does not wind up on the North Side, it would probably not be for lack of cash.
What could be an issue for the Cubs may be the fact that as a good starter, but not an ace, Cobb could be pursued by essentially every team. Teams lacking good top of the rotation arms may seek out Cobb to sustain their rotation as a solid number two starter, whereas a team like the Cubs or Dodgers may look to Cobb to supplement an already good rotation. He falls into a unique tier in this regard and it will likely play to Cobb’s fiscal advantage.
Alternatives: In the event the Cubs do not wind up with Cobb, the other pitcher in that second tier of starters would be outgoing Cardinals starter Lance Lynn. Like Cobb, Lynn is 30 years old, coming off of a recent Tommy John surgery (Lynn’s was in 2016), and doesn’t strike out a ton of batters. However, Lynn has never had the control Cobb does and surrenders more home runs. That said, Lynn elicits more soft contact and less hard contact than Cobb. Pros and cons to both ballplayers, but Cobb comes with fewer question marks.
Then there’s always the possibility the Cubs go big and try to nab either of the two top arms on the market, Jake Arrieta or Yu Darvish. Though both would be great additions to a Cub rotation (suffice to say the former has proven that before), both starters are older than Cobb and would be much more expensive. While it’s fair to wonder if Darvish’s poor World Series performance will negatively impact his earning ability this offseason, it feels unlikely it will drop his cost enough to really fall into the Cubs’ winter shopping budget.
If the Cubs don’t wind up with any of those players, they may take a look at other free agents like Jaime Garcia, Jhoulys Chacin, Andrew Cashner or CC Sabathia. If Shohei Otani arrives from Japan, he could be an option. The Cubs could also try and finagle a trade for a pitcher like Jeff Samardzija, Chris Archer or Jake Odorizzi.
Nonetheless, with his connection to Joe Maddon and Jim Hickey, keen control, ability to elicit groundballs and numbers that showed steady growth throughout his first season back from surgery, Alex Cobb still feels like a very logical fit with the Cubs. Expect to hear his name quite a bit as the offseason gets rolling.
Lead photo courtesy Jasen Vinlove—USA Today Sports