There are whispers of a mystical land hidden deep in the murky swamps of Florida. A Carcosa of perfectly manicured grass, and covered in the finest red clay that central Florida has to offer. This oasis is, quite definitely, the least happy baseball field on the planet. There, players (dressed in what I can only assume are the completely generic baseball uniforms you wear when you end up on a Wheaties box) mull around and commiserate with each other. They field grounders, they take hacks, they complain about their agents. Jarrod Saltalamacchia throws long toss to J.J. Hardy, both silently reminiscing and yearning for the return of 2012.
The Diamond of Misfit Toys seems like a sad place to be. Granted I don’t really know, because for whatever reason baseball decided not to let media members in, but it seems like a sad place. My guess is that it is. Assuming as much, it’d behoove the Red Sox to swoop in and help one of those poor, generic-jersey-wearing souls, be emancipated from that private workout hellscape.
One of those poor souls happens to be Alex Cobb, who is someone the Red Sox should take a nice, long look at. I should note that I don’t think this will happen. Alex Cobb is in the range of good/okay/fine, but there are not many good/okay/fine pitchers left on the market, and a lot of teams need a good/okay/fine starter more than the Red Sox. Someone’s going to pay Cobb to be their number-two guy, and that obviously won’t be the Sox. BUT:
If there’s mutual interest, the Red Sox should pounce. The current free agent market is eventually going to cause a work stoppage, but right now there’s about as good a window to get talent on a team-friendly deal as there’s ever been.
Cobb’s 30, but his workload has been relatively light. Missing a year because of Tommy John is obviously a big reason for that, but since coming up in 2011, Cobb has thrown 700 innings. Comparatively, Chris Sale came up the year before Cobb and has thrown 1,324 innings. There’s life left in Cobb’s arm, and all the numbers paint the picture of a remarkably consistent mid-rotation guy.
Cobb’s biggest pluses are that he doesn’t walk people and he keeps the ball in the park. His career walk rate sits right at seven percent, with his career HR/9 sitting at a very cozy 0.84. He’s posted better than league average totals in both walk rate and HR/9 during every season he’s stayed healthy. He doesn’t really strike people out (19.7 career strikeout rate), but you can live with a mid-rotation guy not piling up K’s when he can do the other things well. Chris Sale will strike enough people out for the both of them, do not worry.
Looking at last year’s numbers, there are some contact issues worth bringing up. After keeping his fly-ball rate under 30 percent for the entirety of his career, Cobb finally passed that threshold last year. Hitters are starting, albeit slowly, to hit the ball in the air more often against Cobb. Whether that’s a product of Cobb’s stuff, or just a reflection on the growing trendiness of hitting the ball in the air (I tend to think more the latter), it’s worth keeping an eye on. Cobb’s career fly-ball rate sits right at 26 percent, so it’s entirely possible last year was an anomaly. Still, declines always have a starting point, and it’s too soon to tell if this is Cobb’s.
Since coming up in 2011, Cobb has been at least a two-win pitcher in any full season where he’s been healthy. His only sub-two seasons were his debut year, when he only pitched 50-something innings, and his Tommy John season, when he threw 22. Let’s assume that the Red Sox sign Cobb and place him into the fourth spot in the rotation. Here’s how many wins the Red Sox fourth starters have been worth since Cobb came into the league:
2011: 0.7 (Clay Buchholz)
2012: 0.8 (Clay Buchholz)
2013: 2.2 (Felix Doubront!)
2014: 0.4 (Rubby de la Rosa)
2015: 1.6 (Rick Porcello)
2016: 1.2 (Eduardo Rodriguez)
2017: 2.0 (Rick Porcello)
Essentially, Cobb would provide the Red Sox with a luxury they’ve rarely had this decade. This is also a big reason why Cobb has probably priced himself out of the picture for the Red Sox, but you just never know in this market. Jake Arrieta is on the Phillies. Christian Yelich is on the Brewers. Weird shit happens. I’m firmly on Team You Can Never Have Too Much Quality Starting Depth, and the Red Sox are one Drew Pomeranz elbow explosion away from a real disaster. Steven Wright won’t be ready for the regular season and cannot pitch unless the weather is literally perfect. I choose to believe that Eduardo Rodriguez’s knee can stay in place when it goes six weeks without falling out. The Red Sox starting depth looks great on paper, but a closer look reveals a pretty delicate situation. If this is indeed the middle of some three-year window, this seems like the perfect time to shell out a little more to create one of the deepest rotations in baseball. The team most likely can’t wait much longer to see how their rotation shapes up, and still be able to make a move for Cobb, but I wouldn’t hate it if they did.
Photo by Rick Osentoski — USA TODAY Sports