Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections have continued their team-by-team rollout at FanGraphs over the offseason, and while they still haven’t gotten to the Cubs (grr), they did recently get to the Tampa Bay Rays (woo!).
Why woo? If you recall, unsigned free agents (i.e. players with no team right now), are lumped in with their previous team, so that they, too, can get projected out for the upcoming season. And because Alex Cobb’s last team was the Rays … well, those are the dots to connect to the woo!
Here’s what ZiPS thinks of Cobb for 2018: 160 IP, 2.5 WAR, 3.77 ERA, 4.00 FIP
For a little context, that projected 3.77 ERA figures to be about 12% better than the league average mark next season, and is supported by a 4.00 FIP that is about 6% better than league average – remember to keep your ever-evolving expectations relative to the exploding offensive environment. Last season, for example, that ERA would’ve ranked 24th in all of baseball – coincidentally, one spot behind Alex Cobb’s 3.66 mark and two ahead of Yu Darvish – and that FIP would’ve been 27th, one spot behind Gio Gonzalez.
So, in terms of results, Cobb’s projections are pretty solid. That ERA is easily middle-of-the-rotation for a playoff-caliber team, and, hey, that’s what the Cubs need!
What you probably like less, however, is that he’s projected to do it over just 160 IP with a 17.5% strikeout rate. But I wouldn’t worry about that too much just yet. Cobb set a new season high in innings last season (179.1 IP) and is yet another year removed from Tommy John surgery (2015). At 30 years old, I’d take the over on those 160 IP projections and guess that ZiPS is just being overly conservative in this particular context.
As for the strikeout rate, well, yeah, it’s really low, but it is paired with a 6.0% walk rate, which is great and basically identical to the numbers he posted last season (17.3 K%, 5.9 BB%), when he was plenty successful. But, basically, this is the rub with Cobb. In all likelihood, you’re going to get a perfectly solid middle-of-the-rotation pitcher, whose upside/downside will be dictated by the amount of innings he spends on the mound, if he can improve that strikeout rate to about just a bit, and how much he can manage hard contact (which he did not do well last year, for what it’s worth).
If Cobb pitches closer to 16-17% strikeout rate next season and manages just 150 IP, well, he’ll be fine near the back of the rotation, but won’t be much to write home about, especially if you’ve committed four years and $60+ million (plus draft pick/IFA compensation) to him. But if he can stay healthy and repeat his second-half 2017 strikeout rate (20%), he has a chance to be something like one of the top 25 pitchers in baseball – which obviously changes the story quite a bit. His range is that broad.
And perhaps that variability is – in part – why he lingers in the market, waiting for that ellusive four or five-year deal. Because it sure doesn’t sound like he just loves being a free agent (via Mark Topkin – Tampa Bay Times): “You’re full of excitement, you’re rushing into this thing like, ‘Oh, this is going to be a lot of fun, a great experience,'” Cobb told the Tampa Bay Times. “Then somewhere between November and December you realize how slow things are going and you kind of start reading the writing on the wall that this is a little bit of a different offseason than years before. Then you go through a little bit of a frustrating moment, frustrated with the process, frustrated with the way things are going. Then you kind of get to the point where you’re like, ‘Whatever. We’re all in this same boat together.'”
So what’s the latest? Well, according to Topkin, Cobb’s pre-offseason expectations of a four-year/$60M or five year/$70M+ deal have led him to this stalemate. He has reportedly spoken seriously with up to 15(!) teams, including the Brewers, Twins, Nationals, Orioles, Rangers, and Yankees (and Cubs, naturally). And if Topkin is right, Cobb still hasn’t eliminated any of those teams (though I’m wondering if that’s out of necessity more than anything else).
My best guess? Cobb winds up with something north of the Cubs’ initial three-year, $42 million offer and south of the four-year, $60 million offer he’s still hoping for. The Cubs remain a strong possibility, but given their chances at landing Yu Darvish (or even Jake Arrieta) on a relative bargain, well, I’m just not sure their sole attention is focused on Cobb (and that probably goes for other teams, too). I suppose the Yankees, Twins, Cardinals, and Brewers all seem like perfectly logical landing spots for Cobb, as well, but I suppose we’ll have to wait and see how it all plays out.
At some point (probably soon), Cobb will find his 2018 home. Maybe.