Tuesday night, former Tampa Bay Rays righty Alex Cobb inked a four-year, $57 million deal with the Baltimore Orioles, ending his four and a half month free agency. And with Cobb now in the fold, the Orioles are a legitimate Wild Card threat.
The Orioles head into 2018 under the radar after their disappointing 75-win 2017 season. Their struggles were generated by a mix of inconsistency from their lineup and struggles of epic proportions from manager Buck Showalter‘s rotation. Finishing 27th in team ERA (4.97), the Orioles received little to no production and/or reliability from their horses. Righty Chris Tillman was rocked all year and finished with a career-worst 7.84 ERA and 1.89 WHIP. Kevin Gausman put runners on base often and regressed, recording a 4.68 ERA. One semi-bright spot was 25-year-old Dylan Bundy starting 28 games and holding his own on the hill striking out 152 batters. At the same time, based on Tillman and Gausman’s severe struggles last season, it would be hard to envision them duplicating or getting hit at that magnitude again in 2018. Tillman has been a reliable top-of-the-rotation-arm over the last five years and Gausman has been a viable middle-of-the-rotation righty for the Orioles.
Then, you look at what general manager Dan Duquette did in free agency. Adding Cobb and veteran Andrew Cashner, the Orioles now have two top-of-the-rotation arms to help bolster their staff. Cobb, while not a strikeout pitcher, gets hitters to ground out, overcomes adversity, and has posted a 3.50 ERA over his six-year career. He has also held the rival New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in check in recent memory. Posting a 3.46 ERA versus the Yankees in two starts and a 3.38 ERA versus the Red Sox in five starts last season, he was able to limit the offensive firepower from divisional rivals. Another plus the Orioles have going for them with Cobb is that he has struggled versus their lineup in the past. Posting a 4.44 ERA versus the Orioles in four starts last season (compared to 3.54 against everyone else), Cobb struggled to pitch to his strengths and keep runners off base. Now joining forces with the Orioles, he won’t have to worry about figuring out how to pitch to them.
On the other hand, Cashner has showcased the ability to be an ace in years past. After giving up more hits than innings pitched and recording ERAs in excess of 4.30 from 2015-16, the righty bounced back nicely with the Texas Rangers in 2017. Recording a 3.40 ERA in 28 outings, he was a reliable arm at the top of the Rangers rotation. Much like Cobb, Cashner is not a strikeout pitcher; he thrives on catching hitters off-guard. But with he and Cobb being inserted into the Orioles’ rotation, they have their new one-two punch — for the time being, at least.
When you couple their bolstered rotation with the electric lineup they possess, playoffs are certainly feasible for the Orioles. A lineup that features the likes of Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Jonathan Schoop, Chris Davis, Tim Beckham, and Trey Mancini is capable of being a top-tier unit. In fact, last season they hit the fifth-most home runs (232) and had the eighth-best team batting average in the majors (.260).
A liability that will hurt Baltimore early on in the year is closer Zach Britton‘s absence. After rupturing his Achilles in December, the All-Star closer is expected to miss the first two or three months of the regular season — which is a huge blow for their bullpen. But the southpaw should be able to return midseason.
Are the Orioles going to conquer the AL East? Most likely not. The Yankees are arguably the most well-rounded team in the American League after adding Giancarlo Stanton and Brandon Drury, among others, and the Red Sox have won the AL East in back-to-back years and added J.D. Martinez. But the Wild Card is certainly a realistic outcome for Baltimore.
Assuming either the Red Sox or Yankees snatch one of the two AL Wild Cards, the Orioles’ competition to play in the one-game playoff will likely be the Minnesota Twins, Los Angeles Angels, and Seattle Mariners — all of whom have their fair share of question marks. The Twins will be without Jorge Polanco for 80 games and the playoffs (if they reach the playoffs) due to a PED suspension and are banking on their youth lifting their playoff chances — which is never a given. The Angels have added many proven commodities dating back to their August 31 trade for Justin Upton but are banking on a roster plagued by injury to stay heathy. The Mariners do have a high-octane lineup but are extremely thin in their rotation behind James Paxton.
The Orioles are a team that consists of proven commodities. Last season, they underperformed and pitched at a historically bad level. Adding Cobb shores up their staff a tad bit, as does the arrival of Cashner. And with the expectation that Tillman and Gausman will bounce back and Bundy will progress his arsenal, the Orioles rotation can be a respectable bunch despite not having a bonafide ace.
Machado, Jones, and Britton may walk in free agency after this season and there’s nothing the Orioles will be able to do if the trio aspires to leave other than trade them at the July 31 deadline. But the addition of Cashner and four-year signing of Cobb shows that management is all-in on 2018 and are preparing for life without some of their core players. And keeping those players for the season’s entirety gives Baltimore a better chance at playing in October.
They may not be a World Series contender, but the Orioles getting Cobb makes them a serious threat and frontrunner to sneak into the American League playoffs.