Observations and analysis of the biggest developments at Orioles camp
1. At last – reason to heap praise on the Orioles!
For months I have been ranting about the Orioles. I was furious at them last season for not unloading prior to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline given their many free-agents-to-be after the 2017 season (Seth Smith, Welington Castillo (who had a player option)) and after the 2018 season (Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Zach Britton, Brad Brach). The O’s were a phony contender, a house of cards that was waiting to come tumbling down. And sure enough it did, as the team went 4-19 over the final 23 games of the season and just 53-77 after a 22-10 start. The O’s had a starting-pitching ERA last season of 5.70, the worst in the majors and a continuation of a decades-long problem of identifying, drafting and developing quality starting pitching.
This offseason seemed ripe to finally begin a much-needed rebuild. But that has never happened. Maybe it was because Peter Angelos is 88 and wants desperately to win a World Series. Maybe it was because Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette are entering the final seasons of contract extensions signed in Jan. 2013 and thus have little reason to tap out on this season. But whatever the reason, the O’s never traded away their assets.
But the O’s also never did the opposite. And this was the problem. You see, the undeniable lesson in Major League Baseball over the last few years is that the worst place you can be is the middle. As I like to say, if you’re not winning 100 games, then you need to be losing 100 games. That’s extreme, but you get the idea. Winning 75-85 games does a team no good. And yet that was the territory the O’s were in. If the team was going to give this incarnation one more run, despite having a number of key free-agents-to-be and despite the American League East being so top-heavy with Boston and the Yankees, the O’s needed to go all-in. They needed to do better than signing Andrew Cashner and re-signing Chris Tillman as offseason moves of significance for what was the worst starting pitching in the majors last season, especially given this offseason’s frozen free-agent market in which a number of pitchers who could have helped were signed at bargain prices or remained unsigned.
Well, we now finally have something. The O’s on Wednesday (March 21) signed free-agent starter Alex Cobb to a four-year contract reportedly worth $57 million. The deal includes deferred money that gives the contract a present-day value of $47 million according to ESPN MLB insider Buster Olney. It is the richest free-agent pitching contract in Orioles history, surpassing the four-year $50 million deal for Ubaldo Jimenez in Feb. 2014. That contract was an absolute disaster. This one, hopefully, will be a little better.
Cobb is entering his age-30 season. He was quite good for Tampa Bay in 2013 and 2014 (134 ERA+ over 49 starts) but missed all of 2015 and most of 2016 due to Tommy John surgery. But he bounced back last season with a 113 ERA+ over 29 starts. And his average fastball velocity last season was 92.2, the second-best of his career.
Cobb also is battled-tested when it comes to arguably the toughest division in the majors, the American League East. He has made 28 career starts against the Red Sox and Yankees, having posted a 3.20 ERA against them.
The big worry with Cobb in addition to his Tommy John history is that he isn’t a strikeout pitcher. Cobb’s K/9 since the surgery is 6.4; his K/9 over the 2013 and 2014 seasons was 8.2.
Does the Cobb signing guarantee the O’s anything this coming season? Of course note. They still have a major uphill battle in the AL East, in which they’re almost certainly battling for no higher than third. And teams like the Angels and Minnesota figure to have a lot to say about the second AL wild-card spot. Heck, Toronto could be a contender as well. And all of these teams realistically appear to be battling for just one playoff spot because four postseason spots are seemingly all but certain to go to Houston, Cleveland, Boston and the Yankees.
But at least now the O’s have a fighting chance. A rotation of Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman, Alex Cobb, Andrew Cashner and Chris Tillman has promise. That Cobb, Cashner and Tillman aren’t at all strikeout pitchers is concerning. That Gausman was so bad over the first three and-a-half months of last season is concerning. That King Kong Bundy, who we learned on Thursday will (deservedly) be the Orioles’ Opening Day starter, has yet to prove to be an ace is concerning. But at least now this rotation has legitimate hope. The O’s going into this coming season with their cast of starting pitchers prior to the Cobb signing was like going into a UFC fight with both arms tied behind your back. Now at least you can throw hands.
2. Two notable roster items for the O’s
We learned on Friday (March 23) that Chance Sisco had beaten out Andrew Susac for the no. 2 catcher job and that Rule 5 draft pick Pedro Araujo would also be making the Orioles’ Opening Day roster.
Sisco was ranked as the Orioles’ no. 3 prospect by MLB Pipeline in February. The question with him has been his defense, although he did struggle from a power standpoint at Triple-A Norfolk last season. Still, he is the Orioles’ catcher of the future and in an ideal world would supplant Caleb Joseph as the Orioles’ no. 1 catcher as the 2018 season goes on.
Araujo was one of three pitchers taken by the O’s in the Rule 5 draft last December. Another one of those pitchers, Nestor Cortes Jr., could make the Opening Day roster as a reliever or even spot starter. Araujo made 44 of his 45 appearances in 2017 for the Cubs’ high Single-A affiliate, Myrtle Beach. But now he will be beginning this coming season at the major-league level.