Alex Cobb and the Orioles were a match made of convenience when he signed late in spring training in 2018, the pitcher whose market never developed as he hoped and the team that could say the same about its starting pitching.
He wasn’t unique in that sense when it came to last decade’s Orioles, whose scatter-shot pitching development methods and unfortunate trades left them without much in the way of homegrown big league starters. That led them to commit $50 million to Ubaldo Jiménez in 2014, $22 million to Yovani Gallardo in 2016 and $16 million to Andrew Cashner and $57 million to Cobb in the spring of 2018.
That’s $145 million in guaranteed free-agent contracts — nearly as much as the Orioles’ disastrous initial commitment to slugger Chris Davis — to fill in around the realities that top picks Dylan Bundy, Kevin Gausman and Hunter Harvey never turned into rotation-topping horses, future starters like Eduardo Rodriguez and Zach Davies were traded for deadline rentals that didn’t pan out, and bargains who fueled their playoff run like Wei-Yin Chen and Miguel Gonzalez had moved on.
Cobb was the last remaining vestige of that era, and his pending trade to the Los Angeles Angels is a lot of things. It’s another clear-as-day signal that the Orioles’ priority is building the best team for the future regardless of what that means for the present. It’s a bit more ammunition for those speculating about the team’s clear pattern of cost-cutting this offseason.
But it’s also a trade by a baseball operations department, led by executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias, who was hired expressly to ensure the Orioles never need to spend big on a mid-level free-agent pitcher to compete again. When they have money to spend, and reason to spend it, their current path will mean that money will go elsewhere.
Once Cobb’s trade is finalized — and accounting for the fact that Gallardo and Cashner were also dealt before their deals ended — the Orioles will have spent roughly $106 million for nine seasons of their multiyear free-agent starting pitchers and reaped just 9.7 wins above replacement (WAR) from them, according to FanGraphs.
That’s a paltry return on such an investment. Consider this: Cincinnati Reds right-hander Luis Castillo accumulated 10.6 WAR while making the league-minimum before he got his first arbitration raise this offseason, and several other first-year arbitration eligible pitchers came close to that before their salaries even hit seven-figures.
John Means’ three-win rookie season was so impressive that he can still get close to delivering the same value as those four veterans did in their Orioles careers with a strong 2021 season, and he’ll be doing it for the minimum as well.
Developing your own pitching is the easiest way to gain value and put a championship team on the field, and most everything the Orioles have done under Elias since his hire in November 2018 has been to that end.
Chris Holt, then the Houston Astros’ assistant pitching coordinator, was brought over to institute their successful pitching development program with the Orioles. In 2019, that program produced significant gains at all levels of the minors. Holt now has a dual role as major league pitching coach and director of pitching.
In 2020, it started to produce its first wave of quality starters in Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer and Bruce Zimmermann, who refined what were already strong profiles into better ones under the new direction.
Between that major league group and their top young pitchers Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall, who are consensus top-100 prospects despite never pitching in the high-minors, there’s another swell of starters coming up from the standout 2019 rotation at Double-A Bowie.
Michael Baumann, Alexander Wells and Zac Lowther have dominated at times in the minors, and will likely be at Triple-A Norfolk when that season begins to check that development box ahead of their major league debuts later this summer. That high-minors depth was supplemented by trades that brought well-regarded pitchers such as Kyle Bradish, Kevin Smith and Garrett Stallings into the system over the last year-plus as well.
All that comes without spending significant draft capital on pitching, something that the pre-Elias Orioles and the Astros front office this regime came from know all too well is a risky proposition. Instead, they loaded up on later-round pitchers who fit criteria in terms of velocity and spin rates to create a glut of interesting low-minors arms out of the 2019 draft. Draftees like Connor Gillespie, Dan Hammer and Griffin McLarty are just a few in that class who carry promise. Trade acquisitions Zach Peek and Kyle Brnovich came from that draft class and were Orioles targets, too. Their one pitcher taken in 2020, Carter Baumler, looked the part before hurting his elbow at instructional camp and requiring Tommy John reconstruction surgery.
Mix in all the new blood with carryover pitchers from Dan Duquette’s final drafts who are benefiting from the new approach like Cody Sedlock, Brenan Hanifee, Drew Rom and Ofelky Peralta, and the player development staff is going to struggle to find innings for everyone with just four affiliates going forward.
It will be years before the true fruits of the Orioles’ stockpiling of pitching depth is evident, but there’s clearly a plan in place here. Elias is taking what was already a strong group of pitchers in the system when he took over, supplementing that through trades, targeted picks in the draft and eventually the bounty from their renewed participation in the Latin American market, and putting them into a system where they’ll have every opportunity to improve into a big league pitcher.
There have been plenty such promises from the B&O Warehouse in generations past, none of which delivered the kind of results that Orioles fans craved. Neither, though, did paying tens of millions of dollars to the free-agent middle class.
Key dates for the Orioles’ preseason preparations in Sarasota, Florida:
Feb. 10: Pitchers and catchers report
Feb. 21: Position players report
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Feb. 27: First exhibition game vs. Atlanta Braves