SARASOTA, FLA. — It might be easy to discount what Alex Cobb still has to offer the Orioles in the third year of the big contract he signed back in March 2018.
He’s 32 years old and highly unlikely to be around when — and if — the Orioles emerge from their long-term rebuilding project to reestablish themselves as a team to be reckoned with in the imposing American League East.
He’s also coming off a pair of seasons he’d like to forget, the first because he signed late in spring training and never really looked like himself on the way to a 5-15 record … the second because he pitched just 12⅓ innings last year before a series of physical setbacks led to season-ending hip surgery.
So, don’t expect him to predict a big season or even a healthy one. Cobb has spent enough time on the injured list for two careers, so he’s taking nothing for granted. But he’s feeling fine at the moment and there are several good reasons this potential comeback season still matters to all concerned.
For one, the Orioles still owe him $29 million for the next two seasons, so they would like to get some return on the rest of the biggest free-agent contract ($57 million) they’ve ever given to a pitcher. For another, they need all the viable starting pitchers they can send to the mound behind 2019 Rookie of the Year runner-up John Means.
Most important, a strong first half from Cobb just might make him attractive at the midseason trading deadline, which could allow the Orioles to recoup millions and add another prospect or two to the “elite talent pipeline” that O’s executive vice president Mike Elias has promised to build.
Cobb knows all this and he’s very much on board. He was in basically the same situation a year ago at this time, and probably ruffled some orange feathers when he complained that he was too far along in his career to be happy on a rebuilding team.
When he arrived in 2018, the Orioles were still considered a playoff contender, but the season went south in a hurry, the teardown began in June and the club set a franchise record with 115 losses, which led to the front office overhaul and the retrenchment that came with it.
“You sign going into that season with such high expectations, not only for yourself but for your team, and it’s been everything but that,’’ Cobb said Friday. “So it has been frustrating.”
It also has, in a backward sort of way, been highly motivating. Cobb isn’t focused on anything but having a healthy season and resurrecting a career that included double-digit win totals in each of his four full seasons with the Tampa Bay Rays, though that string was interrupted while he recovered from Tommy John elbow surgery in 2015 and 2016.
“Sitting and watching a team from your house is one of the worst feelings you can have as a professional athlete, but it reignites you,’’ Cobb said. “It really does. There was this energy about it that, when you feel like you’re missing out, you feel like you’re away, you get this added motivation I don’t think you can get any other way. It makes you hungry. It makes you appreciate when you are out on the field.”
So far, so good. Cobb scheduled the major hip procedure and the rehabilitation that followed so that he would be ready to go through his normal offseason conditioning and throwing program, which he says has gone well. The next step is to get through a normal, injury-free spring training, but even Cobb had to verbally knock on wood when he was asked whether he expected that.
“Standing here right now, yeah,’’ he said. “The biggest thing is going to be, all of us, the coaching staff and the training staff getting together every day and seeing how my body responds. We don’t foresee anything going on, but you’re going to have to wait and see. Those muscles are still getting stronger and still rebuilding. I’m hoping it’ll be a real smooth spring, but that’s the case for everybody that’s in camp and in every camp I’ve been a part of.”
If all goes well, he could be a stabilizing presence in the starting rotation and an important veteran voice in the clubhouse.
That might not make up for all the disappointment he has experienced during his first two years here or that of the team that paid him so much for those seasons.
“You have to put all that aside, feeling like you’re not living up to expectations ... and knowing you can’t fix it,” he said. “You can’t fix what happened. The only way to fix it is to be good going forward. That’s the only thing my vision’s on right now, is to perform this coming season.”