When news broke on Tuesday that longtime Rays right-hander Alex Cobb had agreed to terms on a deal with the Orioles, I had a few reactions. First off, I believe this was a terrific deal for Alex Cobb. With a four-year pact worth $57 million, he received approximately what many people expected he would going into the offseason, if not a little bit more. Put this in the win column for Cobb, especially considering fellow free agent Lance Lynn just took a $12 million commitment with the Twins for the 2018 season only. From the Orioles’ standpoint, I find myself continuously clawing at my own head, wracking my brain for a justification.
If the Orioles’ window to sneak into the playoffs hadn’t already shut, the vast improvements made by the Twins and Angels (not to mention adding the reigning NL MVP to their own division) ought to take care of that. Even if it remains cracked for one more campaign, they are Ali and time is Frazier. This offseason, they will lose the following players to free agency: Manny Machado, Chris Tillman, Adam Jones, Zach Britton, and Brad Brach. After the 2019 season: Mark Trumbo (even though they are paying him through 2022), Andrew Cashner (also paid through ‘22), Jonathan Schoop, and Darren O’Day. Let me rephrase all of that. When 2019 is over, and Cobb still has two years at $29 million left on his deal and a partial no-trade clause, it is probable that six of the nine best Orioles over the last two years will be gone.
This would not look so dire if Baltimore had replacements at the ready for these big names. Unfortunately, and concerningly, this is the complete opposite of reality. Austin Hays could be a reasonable replacement for Jones when the time comes. Beyond that, their farm leaves much to be desired, especially for a team that is losing so much of their core in a short span and hasn’t won a game in the ALCS since Bill Clinton was president.
That Peter Angelos didn’t capitalize on a golden opportunity is astonishing to me. After 2016, he could’ve traded Manny Machado, a perennial 6+ WAR player with two years of team control remaining. He’s still there, because not facing him a few times a year during an inevitable rebuild was more important than trading him to your division rival who just happened to have one of the best farms in baseball and could have significantly shortened the next painstorm over Camden Yards.
He had the opportunity to move Adam Jones, the poster child for consistency and a model citizen who is foaming at the mouth for the chance to win a ring and would bring a valuable veteran presence to any team looking for a piece to get them over the hump.
He could’ve shipped out Zach Britton and/or Brad Brach, in a Yankees-style relief sale. Britton was one of just four relievers to post at least 120 saves from 2014-16. He was second among relievers with 200+ IP in that span in WHIP, first in HR/9, and third in K-BB%. All of this, added to the fact that he was going into just his age-29 season, suggested there was some great baseball left in him. If he could have gotten anything in the realm of the Chapman haul New York received from Chicago, I am baffled and almost angered for the fanbase that the management forwent that opportunity.
Even if they insisted on keeping Britton and instead shopped Brach after the 2016 season, he was a strikeout pitcher coming off his best season, of reasonable age at 31 years old with two years of control and a mix of pitches that seemed built to hold up over a few more solid seasons.
Alas, that opportunity came and went. Machado is now coming off a down season and only one year from free agency. Jones is a year older. Britton is coming off a catastrophic injury, and Brach had a worrisome second half in which he posted a 1.49 WHIP and is about to be 32 years old. This is not to say at least Jones and Brach won’t bounce back or that Britton won’t be even close to his former self if/when he returns – obviously, both possibilities remain. But the risk that already existed has been greatly exacerbated by a 2017 in which it seemed if it could go wrong in Baltimore, it probably did.
All of this, and to add insult to injury, the Orioles have only seven average-or-better rated prospects in one of the weakest farms you’ll find right now. Hays could provide a seamless transition from Jones in a year’s time. Beyond that, does anyone right now believe that Mountcastle, who barely managed a .600 OPS in 39 Double-A games this season, will be capable of anything close to what Machado has produced? Would you trust that Hunter Harvey, who pitched a whopping 18.2 innings this season between Rookie-level and A-ball as a 23-year-old, will become the first bona-fide frontline guy the Orioles have had since probably Mike Mussina? Can you count on Tanner Scott, who has serious concerns with both command and control that makes some scouts believe he screams late-inning reliever? To use the cliché: no prospect, particularly a pitcher, is ever a sure thing. That being said, looking around the league, there are different groups of franchises. One holds teams like the Braves, White Sox, Rays, Athletics, Reds, Phillies and Padres, who haven’t seen much success at the majors level of late but whose farms have fans as well as people around the league intrigued for their futures. You have organizations like the Indians, Red Sox, Cubs, Nationals, who don’t have a ton at the minors levels because they are fully in the midst of win-now mode. Occasionally you get a Dodgers or a Yankees – the franchises who manage to put together a strong young MLB core while maintaining a bright future down on the farm. The Orioles don’t really fit neatly into any of these categories. They’re kind of just…there, because their ownership and management has lacked the same one key element that plagued the Marlins until the merciful transfer of power this past autumn: commitment to a plan.
All of this is why I don’t like the fit for Cobb in Baltimore at all. I don’t blame a pitcher for getting his money. I criticize greatly the decision by Orioles management to commit the upper-end of market value to a career mid-rotation starter from his age-30 through his age-33 season. This is the kind of move I would understand from a team just entering or at least relatively early in their window of potential, perhaps the Cardinals or Angels. I don’t believe it will hurt them too significantly, as the contract is quite reasonable for a player like Cobb who is a solid option as a #4 or even a #3 in a rotation. The trouble is, he’s probably going to be tasked with the role more akin to a #2 or higher in Baltimore. For this and the other reasons I mentioned, I merely didn’t see the point of this contract from Baltimore’s perspective and believe the entire mentality of the process within the organization right now is deeply flawed.