Both Jake Arrieta (3 years, $75 mil with PHI) and Lance Lynn (1 year, $12 mil with MIN) signed within the last week at very relatively reasonable rates, which has only caused more unrest among fans of the Milwaukee Brewers. A large and vocal portion of the local faithful are up in arms about the fact that the Brewers have yet to add another productive pitcher to the starting rotation before the start of the regular season, and now only one of the ‘Big 4’ free agent starters remain available on the open market - Alex Cobb, formerly of the Tampa Bay Rays.
Cobb has been one of the more heavily-linked arms to the Brewers since the offseason began way back in October, but there haven’t been any specific reports about negotiations between his camp and the Brewers, either. The rhetoric from Milwaukee’s front office indicates that the team is done making any ‘major’ moves before Opening Day, but fans remain persistent about the supposed need to sign the 30 year old to shore up what many believe will be a weak starting rotation in 2018.
Here on March 14th, and with all the the comments that David Stearns and company have made since signing Jhoulys Chacin back in December, it doesn’t feel likely at all that the Brewers will be inking Cobb anytime soon. So what might the possible reasons be for Milwaukee’s seeming lack of interest?
Cobb has a long track record of effectiveness at the MLB level since debuting in 2011, pitching to a 3.50 ERA and 74 DRA- across 700.0 innings for the Rays. He does not have a track record for durability, however. Cobb has never made 30 or more starts in a given season, and has previously undergone surgeries for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome (2011) and a torn UCL in his elbow (2015). Since returning from his Tommy John procedure in late 2016, Cobb has shown diminished stuff - including a lack of feel and reduced usage of his previously devastating splitter. Cobb managed to post a 3.66 ERA and 86 DRA- in a career-high 179.1 innings in his first full season back, but did so with just 6.4 K/9 and a 6.7% swinging strike rate - which both rank near the bottom of qualified starters.
Projected Performance versus Contract Demands
While we’ve seen Arrieta and Lynn both lower their asking prices significantly in order to sign, it doesn’t seem like Cobb is very interested in doing the same. He was reportedly seeking a deal in the $70 mil range early in the offseason, and it’s been said that he rejected a three-year, $42 mil deal from the Cubs before they signed Tyler Chatwood. According to Jeff Passan of Yahoo!, Cobb “easily could have signed for three years early in the winter. One team was ready to give him four at $12 million per.” The projection systems aren’t exactly high on Cobb going forward, with PECOTA pegging him for a 4.92 ERA in 2018 and Steamer forecasting a 4.43 earned run average. If indeed Cobb were to produce at a level close to what the spreadsheets predict, he wouldn’t be worth $12+ mil annually.
For the Brewers, that means something. While they did make major outlays for Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, neither deal was viewed as being an “overpay.” Stearns and company have shown that they are very cost-conscious since the new regime took over in 2015, including (but not limited to): non-tendering Chris Carter after a 41 home run season, letting Anthony Swarzak walk over a difference of $3 mil spread over two seasons, non-tendering Jared Hughes after a career year, offering take-it-or-get-non-tendered deals to Jeremy Jeffress and Stephen Vogt, and the four low-risk, upside-driven MLB contracts that he gave to pitchers this past offseason - Chacin (2 years, $15.5 mil), Gallardo (1 year, $2 mil non-guaranteed), Albers (2 years, $5 mil), and Logan (1 year, $2.5 mil with team option). The Brewers only have a shade over $87 mil committed to the 2018 payroll and owner Mark Attanasio told fans that there is still money available at ‘On Deck’, but Stearns seems committed to taking a more frugal approach and preserving that almighty ‘financial flexibility’ even as his club is still nowhere near the median MLB payroll and has fairly minimal contractual obligations moving forward.
Maybe Matt Arnold knows something we don’t
If there is anyone who is familiar with what Alex Cobb brings to the table, it’s Matt Arnold. Milwaukee’s assistant GM was hired as a pro scout by Tampa Bay’s front office in 2006, the year that Cobb was drafted. He was promoted to Director of Professional Scouting in 2009 and stayed in that position until his final season with Tampa Bay, when he was moved up to Director of Player Personnel. He also oversaw Tampa Bay’s biomechanics and human movement analyses at all levels of the organization. Player evaluation is part statistics and part scouting, and Arnold should be intimately familiar with Cobb’s delivery and mechanics and how they figure to hold up over time. It’s highly unlikely that Stearns would ignore the point of view of his next-in-command and his first-hand knowledge of the player in question, so if Arnold is not feeling confident about how Cobb’s profile holds up over the next few seasons, then there is a very slim chance that he lands with the Brewers.
The Brewers trust their internal depth
Shortly after the start of Spring Training, again fielding questions about the lack of further rotational additions, David Stearns was quoted as saying:
“We have guys who are likely to make the team, and guys who are likely to start the season in the minor leagues, and can fill in and grow and develop. So, for us to expend resources, whether it’s financial or prospect value, to bring someone in, it’s going to be someone we think moves the needle (substantially).”
That begs the question, is Cobb truly an upgrade over what Milwaukee has in-house? He surely looks like one based on his prior track record. But Stearns and company aren’t interested in paying the 30 year old for what he’s done in the past, and any acquisition that they make is based heavily on their own proprietary statistical, biomechanical, and scouting information. Given Milwaukee’s apparent tepid interest in Cobb, it leads one to believe that the front office’s internal analyses doesn’t think the former Ray will “move the needle substantially” in 2018 and beyond. Is Cobb an ace? No. Is he still a #2 or #3, as he’s shown the ability to be in the past? The publicly available projections don’t seem to think so.
Right now Milwaukee has five pitchers battling for the #4 and #5 rotation spots - Junior Guerra, Brent Suter, Wade Miley, Brandon Woodruff, and Aaron Wilkerson - who will all make at or close to (Miley is on a MiLB deal that pays him $2.5 mil if he makes the roster) the league minimum in 2018. Besides free agent signee Miley, the other four players can be optioned to the minor leagues to start the season and all still have between five and six seasons of club control remaining. If the Brewers believe they can get a similar level of cumulative production throughout the season from those five arms plus prospects like Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta on the cusp of the big leagues (and/or a possible deadline acquisition) than they would from Cobb, then why would they want to spend $12+ mil over a multiyear term and surrender another draft pick? After all, as Jeff Passan wrote during the winter after talking with various front office executives and agents around the game:
“[Y]ou can’t be a genius if you spend money. You can only be a genius if your team wins through not spending money. And that’s ridiculous. It’s absolutely ridiculous. But they (owners and front offices) have done a good job in conditioning the whole world to see it that way.”
Maybe Alex Cobb doesn’t want to come to Milwaukee
Whether it’s true or not, there’s a stigma about Milwaukee - a smaller, Midwestern city with nothing much exciting to do and freezing cold weather for half the year. Trying to convince someone to come to the Cream City has hurt the Bucks and Brewers throughout the years as they’ve pursued various free agents. We saw this as recently as this past winter, when Milwaukee pursued Yu Darvish. He preferred a larger market like Chicago or Los Angeles, and in the end he chose the Cubs. No matter how competitive Milwaukee's offer was, the reports indicated that it wouldn't have made a difference in his ultimate decision.
This could theoretically be something on Cobb's mind. He was drafted over a decade ago by a franchise that he was unable to choose, and according to Baseball-Reference has earned about $13 mil to this point in his career. This is his first crack at free agency and probably the best chance he will have in his career to earn a significant payday. If for whatever reason he doesn't think Milwaukee is a good place for him and his family, that is certainly his right.
Personally, I would very much like to see the Brewers bring Alex Cobb into the fold. But there are plenty of plausible explanations - including my own speculations discussed above and scores of others - as to why it hasn't happened yet. Another signing feels less and less likely as the season draws near, meaning that for better or for worse, we need to start accepting that Alex Cobb will almost surely not be a Brewer.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus