Baseball’s winter marches on (although thankfully the winter temperatures have not yet arrived here in Milwaukee) and our beloved local nine continues their search for starting pitching. In most every interview he’s done since the season ended David Stearns has mentioned pitching as his team’s primary focus this offseason, though the market has been extremely slow to develop as teams are still trying to figure out where Shoehei Ohtani and Giancarlo Stanton will end up. That means that every other top free agent is still up for grabs, including right-hander Alex Cobb.
Cobb, who turned 30 shortly after the 2017 regular season ended, began his career back in 2006 when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays made him their 4th-round draft selection. Cobb was never rated all that highly as a prospect - he never showed up on anyone’s top-100 list, and never even ranked as a top-10 Rays’ prospect according to Baseball America. Slowly but surely he worked his way up the minor league ladder, spending full seasons pitching in rookie ball (2006), short-season Class A (2007), low-A (2008), high-A (2009), and AA (2010). He began 2011 by pitching in AAA, but finally made his big league debut in May of that year as a 23 year old.
In his six seasons in Tampa Bay since then, Cobb has proven to be quite an effective starter at the big league level. During the 115 starts he made as a member of the Rays, the righty tossed an even 700.0 innings with a 3.50 ERA. While he’s been highly productive when on the field, the problem for Cobb throughout his career has been staying healthy. In his rookie season of 2011, he missed the final two months after undergoing Thoracic Outlet Syndrome surgery. In 2013, it was two months on the shelf after suffering a concussion. In 2014 a strained oblique cost him more than a month’s worth of game action. In early 2015 he began dealing with forearm soreness that was eventually diagnosed as a partially torn UCL, which necessitated Tommy John surgery. He missed the entire 2015 regular season and returned in time to make only five starts at the end of 2016.
Cobb’s most productive seasons in the big leagues came during 2013-14. He posted sub-3.00 earned run averages in each season, compiling a 2.76 ERA across 143.1 innings in 2013 and a 2.87 mark while logging 166.1 innings in 2014. While relying heavily on split-finger, Cobb registered 8.2 K/9, 2.7 BB/9, and a 56% ground ball rate during his combined 309.2 innings during those two campaigns and logged a DRA- of 60, or a Deserved Run Average that was 40% better than league-average.
After returning to full health in 2017, Cobb was able to put together a successful season on the mound though he was forced to attack hitters in a different way. The Rays discouraged Cobb from utilizing his split-finger so much post-surgery, so he greatly increased the usages of his sinker and curveball. Cobb’s ground ball rate of 47.8% was the lowest of his career, but he was still able to post a 3.66 ERA while tossing a career-high 179.1 innings during his 29 starts. DRA felt like he pitched as a capable mid-rotation starter, rating his work at 14% better than league-average.
Cobb’s velocity has remained steady even after returning from surgery. He’s averaged 91.7 MPH on his fastball during his time as a big leaguer, and he sat at an average of 92.0 MPH in 2017. The movement on his pitches hasn’t been affected much by his surgery, either. He did have some issues leaving balls over the plate in 2017, however. He threw more pitches in the strike zone (45.8%) than he had in any of his prior seasons and allowed the highest rate of contact (85%) he ever has a big leaguer. His 6.7% swinging strike rate was a career-low, and his 6.4 K/9 was the lowest strikeout rate he’s posted in a full season. Batters were able to punish Cobb for his mistakes more than ever before, as he allowed a career-worst 1.1 HR/9 (though the league-average was 1.3 HR/9). He did help mitigate these issues by seemingly improving his already strong control and command, as his 5.9% walk rate last season was the lowest amount of free passes he’s ever issued. His command, as measured by Baseball Prospectus’ Called Strikes Above Average metric, rated as the 10th-best in the MLB among qualified starters in 2017.
Cobb rejected Tampa Bay’s Qualifying Offer so signing him will require giving up draft pick compensation, although it would only cost Milwaukee their Competitive Balance Round B pick at #74 overall next season. Cobb is considered to be in the next tier of available pitchers right below Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish, but he shouldn’t require a commitment anywhere near as large as those two figure to command. MLB Trade Rumors predicted that Cobb will ink a four-year, $48 mil deal, while the expert than Jon Heyman talked to believes Cobb will land a $58 mil guarantee over four seasons.
That level of commitment isn’t prohibitive by any means, even for a small-market franchise like the Milwaukee Brewers. Cobb has already been specifically linked to the Cubs and Orioles this offseason, but reports indicate that the Brewers are “in” on all the top free agent pitchers available so it’s quite likely they’ve been in contact with Cobb’s representatives, as well. Cobb is one of the younger free agent arms on the market and has an impressive track record of strong performances, but he’s not without his warts, too. He’s a major health risk who has never made 30 starts as a big leaguer and has topped 150 innings only twice in his career. Since his elbow surgery and the effective shelving of his splitter, he hasn’t missed bats like he did during the early days of his career. But he can still generate an above-average amount of grounders and his command of the baseball is as good as it’s ever been. Alex Cobb would no doubt be a welcome addition to Milwaukee’s rotation for 2018.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs