This is always an interesting time of year for us baseball bloggers not fortunate enough to have postseason games to write about. October serves as a transition month of sorts, allowing us to give closure to the season that just wrapped up while simultaneously looking ahead to the upcoming offseason and beyond.
Needless to say, everybody has their own picture of the ideal Cardinals offseason, with adding that elusive "big bat" being a recurring theme. Don't get me wrong: I would be over the moon if St. Louis picked up a five-plus win star, but today I'm going to be advocating for a different type of acquisition. The Cardinals can make a legitimate upgrade to their 2018 roster at a reasonable cost while still maintaining the resources and overall flexibility needed to make that big splash in the present or very near future.
As I'm sure you've heard by now, the Cardinals' rotation is laden with question marks. You've got Carlos Martinez as your clear cut #1. After that? Michael Wacha just posted his lowest FIP- since 2013 and the highest fWAR of his career, but he will never be able to shake the durability concerns that continue to follow him. Luke Weaver looked brilliant this season, and he's only going to continue to develop. But this is a man who has never logged more than 137 innings in a single season–let's temper our expectations regarding how much the Cardinals can feasibly expect from him next year. Truth be told, I'm not exactly sure what my expectations are for Adam Wainwright entering 2018. How will he adapt in the face of deteriorating stuff during the twilight of his career? He doesn't have a clean medical bill either, landing on the disabled list twice last season in addition to numerous other injuries throughout his career. It was painful watching him labor through the elbow problems that plagued him as 2017 wore on.
Then we turn to the fifth spot in the rotation. Do you sincerely trust a combination of Jack Flaherty, John Gant, and Alex Reyes* over a full 162-game schedule? I place an asterisk next to Reyes' name because the Cardinals are obviously going to monitor his innings in his return from Tommy John surgery. Remember, this is the state of the Cardinals rotation assuming nobody mentioned goes down. The club could use a stabilizing force in the starting rotation.
Cue Alex Cobb.
Cobb is essentially a rich man's Mike Leake at a discounted price. Picture Mike Leake using his breaking ball and fastball in tandem to, you know, actually strike people out sometimes. The result? An above average pitcher (Leake is technically slightly below average pitcher according to both his career ERA- and FIP-) who can bolster the Cardinals pitching staff. Both frequent the groundball and walk rate leaderboards, though Cobb's superior stuff gives him a 4 rWAR ceiling that Leake will simply never enjoy.
There is a catch, however. Cobb opened 2015 on the disabled list with what was initially diagnosed as right forearm tendinitis. The ailment was later revealed to be a partial tear of his UCL, ending his season. One Tommy John surgery and over a year of rehab later, Cobb made his return in September of 2016 with little effectiveness in five starts. What's far more important than the results from those five games is the fact that Cobb continued to lean on his splitter as the go-to secondary pitch behind his sinker.
2017 was a different story. The Rays told Cobb to throw his physically taxing pseudo-changeup less often as a way to preserve his arm in his first true season back from surgery. As a result, his curveball usage jumped from 20.44% pre-2017 to 34.07% in 2017. Conversely, his splitter usage fell from 34.82% to 14.30%. While the splitter has, as doctors predicted, been the slowest pitch to return, Cobb has compensated for that with a much more effective curveball. Going by FanGraphs' "pitch values" system, the curveball was Cobb's most effective pitch on a per-100-pitch basis this year.
Cobb recouped a mile-per-hour on his sinker this season from his woeful conclusion to 2016. It was only about a half MPH short of his velocity in 2014 before tearing his UCL, and remember that he's going to be another year removed from Tommy John surgery in 2018.
Let's turn our attention towards the potential cost of Alex Cobb. While the Rays' financial constraints would certainly be an issue in the event he agreed to the 1 year, $17.4 million qualifying offer, Jon Heyman reported that Tampa Bay is "expected to extend him the...qualifying offer with little expectation he’d take it." This dilemma the Rays face essentially boils down to one question: is the risk of potentially being stuck with a contract they can't afford worth the reward of a compensation pick if he declines and walks in free agency? Given that the odds Cobb doesn't test this shallow free agent market are fairly slim, I would be inclined to say yes, he will receive and reject the qualifying offer. Fortunately, the new Collective Bargaining Agreement lessens the forfeitures that St. Louis would have to concede, but hold that thought for now.
Regarding the value of Cobb's potential contract in a vacuum, I'll defer to the methodology used by Ben Markham in numerous excellent analyses of him. Using an average aging curve for starting pitchers, the $10.5 million cost per win above replacement in 2017, and a 5.9% annual inflation rate, we can calculate Cobb's market value through various projection models. We'll begin with FanGraphs' Depth Charts projections.
Alex Cobb Market Value Projections (Depth Charts)
According to this model, Cobb would be worth $43.3 million over two years, $59.5 million over three years, and $72.7 million over four. If we average his Depth Charts projections with future estimates based off his age 29 fWAR and rWAR, we get an even more bullish evaluation.
Alex Cobb Market Value Projections (Aggregate)
The Cardinals could ink Cobb to a bargain deal using this aggregate measure. However, we still need to account for the qualifying offer that will likely be attached to him. Per the new CBA, the Cardinals would surrender their second highest draft pick and $500,000 of their international bonus pool money for the next signing period. The loss of international amateur money wouldn't hurt the Cardinals as much as the average club for two reasons.
- Because MLB considers the Cardinals a small market franchise (lol), their bonus pool would still be worth $5.25 million after signing Cobb.
- The Cardinals' spending spree in July of 2016 prohibits them from offering more than $300,000 to any individual player in the 2017-18 period regardless of what they do this winter. Put another way, the signing of Cobb wouldn't impact the Cardinals' chances of landing an elite prospect through international free agency.
If we assume that the Cardinals' second round draft pick will fall somewhere in the vicinity of 65th overall (we won't know for sure until the free agent dust settles), the team would be losing a pick valued at slightly above 0.5 WAR after applying a future discount. Thankfully, the Cardinals are also expected to hold two additional picks between 80 and 90 (Competitive Balance Round B and presumably a compensation pick when Lance Lynn signs elsewhere), which will prevent their bonus pool money from vanishing with the absence of one pick.
TL;DR: If Cobb declines the qualifying offer, add about $6-7 million to the contract he receives to determine its true cost.
So what exactly does that contract look like? Considering the fact that Cobb repeatedly rejected extension offers earlier in his career, he wouldn't be unaccustomed to "betting on himself" with a shorter term, 2-3 year contract. In that scenario, he would walk away with a salary larger than his career earnings to this point (about $13 million) while keeping his future plans flexible as he looks to reestablish himself in the eyes of Major League executives. Meanwhile, the Cardinals wouldn't be making a major financial or prospect commitment in the long run while still upgrading the team right now. Cobb wouldn't interfere with their quest for a bona fide star hitter.
The Red Baron extolled the virtues of smaller offseason moves yesterday, with Alex Cobb being one of the names mentioned in his column. He concluded by noting that "a few small moves like this, combined with one hopefully large move that really does change the equation, could make a huge difference in the fortunes of the 2018 Cardinals." That line perfectly encapsulates my thoughts on the current state of the Cardinals. Signings like Cobb may not lead you to a championship, but they are nonetheless the type of logical, necessary moves needed to complete the puzzle.