The Chicago Cubs figure to be fairly active in free agency this offseason, so it’s worth taking a look at some of the players who could be of interest to the team.
These players present possible fits for the Cubs, at a range of potential costs and talent levels.
Potential Target: Alex Cobb
Performance in 2017
In 2017, Alex Cobb managed the most starts and innings of his career, all with the Tampa Bay Rays, and it came after a season in which he reached just 22.0 IP (we’ll get into why later). Here’s a look at his performance:
As you can see on the first glance, there’s plenty to both love and hate. On the one hand, a sub-6.0% walk rate is excellent, but it comes alongside a tiny 17.3% strikeout rate. That’s about as low as a strikeout rate can get for a starter before it derails everything else. No matter how good you are at managing contact, if there’s too much contact, it simply becomes too many opportunities for things to go wrong.
On the other hand, if you do manage contact well and don’t walk anyone, you can succeed, as Cobb did. His 3.66 ERA was far better than average in 2017, and wasn’t entirely luck based – as his BABIP, strand rate, and HR/FB ratio are all right in line with his career numbers and (more-or-less) the league averages.
Overall, Cobb’s batted-ball data is also a bit of sour and sweet, as his fly ball rate is sufficiently low and his ground ball rate is solid, but, for his profile, you’d like to see more soft contact and quite a bit less hard contact.
Taken altogether though, this was a fairly encouraging season, especially in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery (about which, more below).
Performance Before 2017
From 2012-2014 (remember, this was before the Juiced Ball Era), Cobb posted 2.2, 2.5 and 2.8 fWAR seasons, with ERAs below 3.00 in two out of the three years. Thanks to slightly higher K rates in each of those seasons (peaking at 23.2% in 2013), as well as good control (career 7.0 BB%), Cobb’s FIP dipped as low as 3.23 in 2014, which is pretty good.
Notably, Cobb’s 47.8% ground ball rate in 2017, while good, is BY FAR the lowest of his career. In fact, prior to 2017, Cobb was something of an elite ground ball man, with a career average of 54.0% and a peak at 58.8% in 2012. Given his ground ball tendencies, he could be a very attractive pitcher for the Cubs in the current offensive environment.
Projection for 2018 and Beyond
Obviously, the projections for next season aren’t out yet, so we’ll have to keep the scope of this section limited for now. Even still, it’s hard not to project good things.
Cobb will be just 30 years old throughout the 2018 season, and will be yet another year removed from injury. Given that he showed solid command of his pitches this season, as well as fully restored velocity (in fact, he was throwing harder in 2017 than he has for his career), he feels like a good bet to continue solid performance (relative to his circumstances).
Possible Contract/Existing Rumors
Over at MLB Trade Rumors, Tim Dierkes projected a four-year, $48 million deal for Cobb, but believes he might be heading to the Twins. Of course, Cobb has also been connected to the Cubs here in the early offseason, and for good reason (the Cubs just brought over the Rays (and Cobb’s former) pitching coach).
While this won’t be an important section for every player, it very much is for Cobb.
Back near the beginning of 2015, Cobb hit the disabled list with right-forearm tendinitis and doctors soon discovered that he had a partial tear of his UCL. He underwent Tommy John surgery later that season and missed all of 2015 and most of 2016 (hence the 22.0 IP).
Fortunately, pitchers have had better and better success rates after TJS in recent years, and, for Cobb, so far so good (as I mentioned, he hit an inning and start high in 2017). Given that his velocity remains strong and he’s been able to command all of his pitches, Cobb feels like a safer bet in terms of Tommy John recoverees.
It’s not a lock that Cobb will receive a qualifying offer from the Rays, but it seems very possible, and, if he does, then signing him would cost the Cubs their second round pick.
Fit for Cubs
The fit for the Cubs is quite strong, given Cobb’s age, connection to new pitching coach Jim Hickey, expected performance, and expected contract. And, obviously, with only Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and Jose Quintana penciled into the rotation as of now, there are plenty of openings for a 30-year old starting pitcher.
Furthermore, if a contract in the 4-year/$48M range is what it takes, that would align well with the Cubs’ current competitive window and desire to save some powder for the huge free agent class next offseason.
To be sure, you have to have the right perspective on what Cobb is and is not. You wouldn’t be getting an ace at that price level, and would instead be hoping to get a solid middle-to-back-of-the-rotation arm, steady enough to give you a chance to win most times out, and get into that 180 to 200 inning range by the end of the year.
Frankly, in terms of relatively cheap, but still useful ways to improve the 2018 rotation, Cobb is among the most interesting in free agency. There’s a reason he was the first one up in this series – we think he’s a great free agent to target this winter.