Persistence was key for Orioles in signing free-agent starting pitcher Alex Cobb

In a slow free-agent market that could have left Alex Cobb feeling forgotten on some days, the Orioles made the veteran right-hander feel wanted.

Their four-year, $57 million deal with Cobb — a club-record contract that was finalized Wednesday — didn’t come together overnight. It was a nearly two-month-long process that led to Cobb landing at the Ed Smith Stadium complex, but the Orioles were resilient in their courtship of one of the top available free-agent starters on the market throughout.

“They didn’t stop bothering me the whole offseason,” Cobb deadpanned Wednesday, speaking to reporters minutes after the deal was complete, wearing an Orioles cap. “They were very persistent, and I think that you notice that confidence they have in you just by the way they speak to you, and the questions they ask and not questioning anything that’s gone on.”

Ultimately, Cobb was the best fit for the Orioles because of a deep track record of success pitching in the American League East for the Tampa Bay Rays. He has a 21-13 career record and 3.08 ERA against division opponents. Cobb, known during his days in Tampa Bay for his quiet but fierce competitiveness, wanted to remain in the AL East, and there was no team in the division that needed his services more than the Orioles.

“They always told me how much they like certain aspects of what I do on and off the field, and just kept repeating how well I fit in here,” Cobb said. “They used the AL East and the success I’ve had in it to their advantage. They kept challenging me with it and I love the challenge of pitching in this division and they know that over the times we talked. They did a really good job of making me feel like this is where I need to be.”

The Orioles — a club that has long shunned long-term free-agent deals with starting pitchers as being too risky — made an unprecedented commitment to Cobb. Only once before have the Orioles signed a free-agent starter to a four-year deal — their four-year, $50 million deal with Ubaldo Jiménez fell flat — and the $57 million being paid to Cobb is a club record to a pitcher and the most given to a free-agent pitcher in terms of annual average value, though there is significant money that’s being deferred as part of the deal.

“It’s a prudent policy,” executive vice president Dan Duquette said of the club’s long-standing hesitancy to commit to long-term free-agent deals with starting pitchers. “There’s some protection for the club in regard to the length of the term. I think it was a happy medium for the player and the club. Hopefully it will be a good-long term relationship. Alex was at the stage of his career where he wanted to find a long-term deal and he ended up finding a home with the Orioles.”

Said manager Buck Showalter: “[He] was somebody that we had targeted, from my perspective, [it was] a hope thing. Once again, ownership stepped up for us and just from an evaluation, not putting anybody else down, but I had him right at the top. One, because we had firsthand knowledge. You get to see all the things that he brings through the length of the season. It seems like we played Tampa 100 times. You see him in the spring, you see him during the season 20 times almost. We felt comfortable that we’d seen him so much, knowing what you’re going to get.”

For an Orioles clubhouse that faces its share of questions about its future — cornerstone players Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Zach Britton and Brad Brach are all approaching free agency at the end of the year — the acquisition of Cobb shows the front office’s claim that the team is all in to compete in a bulked-up AL East is more than eyewash. Retooling a rotation that had the worst ERA in baseball last year with the signing of Andrew Cashner and return of Chris Tillman were significant, but locking up Cobb for the next four years marks a new level of commitment.

“It shows that obviously there’s still a commitment to winning,” Jones said. “I like the fact that they risked four years. They went up to four years. That means that ‘OK, cool.’ This is a step. This is not a one-year, two-year deal to just hold you over until someone’s ready. This is a four-year deal saying that you can possibly be one of the anchors of the staff. That right there is a sign. It’s a very good sign for the future for the other players.”

Cobb compiled a 48-35 record and 3.50 ERA in six seasons with Tampa Bay, including a 12-10 mark and 3.66 ERA and career-high 179 1/3 innings last year in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery.

“His competitive nature, his competitiveness, and his wanting to be a perfectionist with all his pitches, Orioles third baseman Tim Beckham, a teammate of Cobb’s in Tampa Bay, said of what stands out about him. “He's a really good pitcher with plus stuff, and I'm looking forward to seeing him play every day. … He's had good success here in the American League East, and it's not an easy division to pitch in. After waiting out so long, I'm sure he's ready to get after it and I'm sure he's just ready to play baseball. That's what we're going to do here, play winning baseball. We're a lot more confident with him in the rotation.”

Cobb approaches the challenge of pitching half his games at hitter-friendly Camden Yards, something that has been an obstacle in courting free agents in the past, with optimism. His ground-ball-inducing repertoire would seem to play well at Oriole Park, but Cobb said the challenge he faced pitching in Baltimore has more to do with the quality of the lineup he faced than the venue itself.

“I’m one of those pitchers,” Cobb said. “I don’t have a very comfortable feeling when I think about that ballpark, but I believe that’s because of the lineup I have to face every time I go in there. It’s going to be very nice to be able to go there and know that I’m not going to face that lineup and I’m going to have that defense behind me.”

Jones, who played against Cobb for parts of six major league seasons as AL East rivals — said Cobb will add an important track record of success in the division.

“We’ve long searched for someone of his caliber,” Jones added. “He knows this division. He knows these ballparks. He knows the lineups. … He’s had a steady career, so hopefully he’ll do the same thing he’s done. I’m tired of him on my hands. Hopefully, he can stay on the hands of the opponents and give our bullpen rest because he’s generally been a guy who goes out there and goes six, seven innings, 100 pitches in most of his starts and gets some weak contact, so I think it’s good for both sides. He has a good defense remaining for him here as he had in Tampa, so I think he can rely that when the ball is put in play, the right outs will be made routinely as he’s seen in Tampa.”

A timetable on when Cobb will be ready to pitch in major league games is unclear. While he went unsigned, Cobb worked out at home in Arizona, and worked his pitch count up to 75-80 pitches in bullpen sessions, but must still build his inning count in games. With less than a week remaining before the regular season begins, he will likely have to do that in minor league contests, and Cobb — who has one minor league option remaining — will accept a limited option assignment to the minor leagues to work his innings up. As a player with more than five years of service time, he had the right to accept or decline a minor league assignment.

“I feel like I got my arm pretty well-conditioned, but having said that, it’s a whole new ballgame with a batter in there and when you get some real adrenaline going,” Cobb said. “You deal with the soreness that comes with that. So we’ll have to do a good job with the training staff here and the front office of mapping out a pretty good idea of what we need to do to get ready.”

Showalter joked that there was a simulated game going on the Ed Smith Stadium field if he wanted to suit up, but said several discussions will take place before mapping out Cobb’s schedule.

“It’s the first time [we are talking about it],” Showalter said. “It’s been a pretty whirlwind few days for him and [to] get our arms around it. We’ve already looked at some potential scenarios. I want to get some feedback from him first. We want it to be right, but we’ll move as quickly as we can.”

Cobb said he will work with the Orioles’ timetable, especially since they are the ones who committed to him and made him feel wanted.

“I’m going to be pushing it as quick as I can,” Cobb sad. “That’s going to be up to them. They’ve invested in me for a four-year period and as much as we know how much every game matters even early in April, we’re going to have to look out for the overall future of this whole thing and whole contract and whatever they determine to be the way to protect me, and my feedback from the bullpens I’m going to be throwing here in the next few days will probably determine the timeline.”

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