Alex Cobb's four-year agreement with the Orioles, pending a medical review, casts the team's 2018 season in a new light.
It took until the last week of spring training to bring in what was seen as the missing piece — a top starting pitcher — but now that they have, the Orioles have a team primed to at least compete in a tough American League, if not contend.
But Cobb doesn't enter the equation in a vacuum. His acquisition will have far-reaching ripples around the Orioles roster — some serious, some minor — and reinforces whatever short- or long-term outlook any observer wants to ascribe to them.
As with most things that concern Orioles roster crunches, the answers can tend to be obvious and the dilemmas themselves overblown. That doesn't mean they don't exist, though, and now a team with plenty of roster questions is having them compounded.
Here are five pieces of fallout from the pending arrival of Alex Cobb, impacting the Orioles pitching staff, bench, reputation in the market and future.
1. Tuesday was a bad day for the fifth starter candidates
Nestor Cortes Jr. and Miguel Castro had a prime-time opportunity to make a good impression in a televised spring training game Tuesday, but had that taken away because of the rainout against the Tampa Bay Rays. Then they probably weren't even home yet to regroup before they saw that Cobb was about to join the Orioles and presumably take a rotation spot from one of them or Mike Wright Jr.
These last six days of camp were going to be crucial, with Cortes and Castro each scheduled to pitch Tuesday and again Sunday as the Orioles continued to evaluate them. Wright will pitch again, too. But these three arrived in Sarasota last month, looked around and saw a path to the rotation. Then the Orioles signed Andrew Cashner and Chris Tillman, and now Cobb is here to fully nudge them out. Castro has a minor league option, so he presumably becomes the top depth piece in Triple-A Norfolk if the Orioles go that route.
But with Wright out of options and Cortes a Rule 5 draft pick who must be returned to the New York Yankees if he doesn't stick on the 25-man roster, that means it's either a bullpen role or bust, as far as being in Baltimore is concerned for each.
2. A pitcher the Orioles want can't stick if Cobb is on the Opening Day roster
Pushing all of that trio into the bullpen, and thereby onto the roster bubble, puts the Orioles’ entire relief corps — outside the established foursome of Brad Brach, Darren O'Day, Richard Bleier and Mychal Givens — on alert.
There might have been a spot for whichever of Cortes, Castro and Wright didn't make the rotation, plus one more of Josh Edgin, Joely Rodríguez, Jimmy Yacabonis, or Rule 5 picks Pedro Araujo and José Mesa, in a projected seven-man bullpen.
If the Orioles' continue trying to keep every player under control that they can hold, that would mean they'd keep Wright and maybe Rule 5 picks Cortes and Araujo. None of them have options, which is a problem, and that means last year's greatest long-relief asset, Castro, starts in the minors and all of Edgin, Rodríguez and Yacabonis — who have all had fine springs — don't get rewarded for it.
3. ... unless they go with a short bench, which would also take away a job from a position player
If the Orioles want to ensure they don't lose any of their pitching assets, such as Mesa, they won't solve the option problem but they could go with a three-man bench for as long as possible and keep the extra reliever. A three-man bench would include a backup catcher, an infielder (or a good hitter nominally called an infielder, a la Pedro Álvarez or Danny Valencia), and Anthony Santander.
They'd need to be ready to abandon that idea in short order if there's an injury to basically anyone, but this might be the way to accommodate Cobb in the event he needs to build up his innings while on the major league roster.
It would mean bad news for plenty of nonroster players, including one of Álvarez or Valencia, plus Craig Gentry, Alex Presley and Cedric Mullins, not to mention the underwhelming set of remaining infielders. But only Valencia and Presley have outs in their contracts, so the Orioles will likely see all of them at some point this year. This would just be a way to maintain some pitching flexibility for a team that has two days off in the first month of the season.
4. The "wait out the market" narrative lives on
The Orioles signed a top free agent who was left on the market in March, much like they did in Februarys past with the likes of Nelson Cruz, Ubaldo Jiménez and Yovani Gallardo. But only Cruz was a true value at one-year, $8 million. Jiménez and Gallardo ended up getting deals that were ultimately in line with their value on that year's market, just later.
Cobb's deal can be argued either way. It's not the $20 million per year he sought, but it's a good deal, especially in this market. And it takes two sides for an agreement, but it's still pretty rich for the middle of March. All of this is irrelevant if Cobb is the Cobb who has pitched well in this division for his entire career. That will deliver plenty of value. But if he does pitch well — or Cashner does, for that matter — let's not make the mistake of saying it's yet another spring steal for the Orioles. As far as pitching goes, either would be the first.
5. They're set up for a future now, even if it's not much like the present
Cobb's signing more so than any other is a move that puts the Orioles easily into either camp they want to be in this season. If things go well, they'll be rewarded for their boldness in spending in the face of a bleak divisional outlook and take advantage of the last year of club control for All-Stars Manny Machado, Adam Jones, Zach Britton and Brad Brach. They now have a rotation to match the promise of their lineup.
But the flip side if things go sideways and they need to move any (or all) of those assets to contenders and add future assets, they'll be adding to a club that has a strong core of starting pitchers in Cobb, Cashner, Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman, and a lineup built around the likes of Trey Mancini and Tim Beckham. That could accelerate a transition into whatever this team will be once those stars hit free agency.