When veteran starting pitchers Andrew Cashner and Alex Cobb signed with the Orioles during spring training, they expected to be starting meaningful games in September. They hoped to be the veteran anchors of a starting rotation competing for a postseason spot.
It definitely hasn’t shaken out that way. As the Orioles near the single-season club record for losses, the veteran duo looks around the clubhouse and sees many new faces. Core players that made the club hope it could contend in 2018 have been traded away, replaced by young rookie pitchers now looking to establish themselves as part of the organization’s rebuilding plan.
“Your responsibility as a veteran player never really changes in the fact that when there’s somebody around who you really need to show the ropes in some sort of way,” Cobb said. “There’s always a responsibility to lead by example, to show how to do your work and preparation for each start consistently each time through. Now there’s probably a few more of those needing that example. … You make sure that you’re aware of that when you’re talking to these younger guys.”
Cashner, 32, and Cobb, 30, still play an important role with this new group. It might actually be a more instrumental one because they are now surrounded by pitchers looking to learn from their veteran counterparts. While the leadership tag can often be thrown around loosely, and it’s often attached to players simply because of their experience level, as the Orioles go through the opening phases of their rebuild, Cashner and Cobb have embraced mentoring the club’s young pitchers, even as injuries have put the veterans’ on-field contributions over the season’s last two weeks in question.
“Just trying to see what they do, learn from them, talk to them in the dugout, just get as much out of it as possible,” said rookie left-hander Josh Rogers, 24, one of the three pitchers acquired from the New York Yankees in the Zach Britton trade. “I think I’ve probably learned more watching and even talking to guys than those first two outings. When you’re out there, it’s just the game and it is what it is. It comes down to executing pitches for me. But how to prepare and how to think about what’s going on with these guys and what goes on in their head, it’s been a really cool experience for sure.”
Their approach is different. Cashner doesn’t hesitate to speak his mind. Cobb’s words are slowly thought out. But together they form a combination that’s made the Orioles’ young pitchers comfortable to learn from. The far back corner of the Orioles clubhouse at Camden Yards — where both veterans have their lockers — has become a place where rookie pitchers aren’t afraid to turn for guidance.
“We definitely have the good cop, bad cop thing down,” Cashner said with a smile. “I will definitely let a guy know when he messes up, but I’ll also try to take them to dinner or be their friend, too. It’s a good thing. Having Alex here, I definitely wouldn’t be able to do this season without Alex here.
“I think it all comes back to winning. That’s the ultimate goal. You can’t focus on an entire season. You just focus on today. For me, it’s helping the young guys understand mistakes they might make or try to ask them questions about something maybe they do on the mound. It’s more so just being there to bounce things off of kind of when I was a rookie. But the mentality of winning never changes. No matter how far out you are, you still come out and try to show up and win the day.”
For rookies like David Hess, the resumes of Cashner and Cobb — their extensive big league portfolios include having to battle through injuries, winning and losing — gives them cache.
“There’s definitely two different approaches they have,” said Hess, 25. “I think it works with different guys in different ways. At the same way, they’ve both been great veteran guys. Cash is definitely more of a vocal leader, but he also leads by example. But he’ll definitely let you know if you’re doing something you shouldn’t be doing or should be doing that you’re not. Cobbie has a different way of approaching it. He will come to you in a more subtle way and kind of ask why you did something and what you were thinking. But at the end of the day, both of them have been a big help to me and I know the other guys would say the exact same thing because being around them, you understand what it takes to be successful.
“I feel like those are two of the guys who whenever I get done with a start or come in, they’re always asking how I felt, what I thought about certain scenarios, kind of digging in and seeing where I sit with things. And then they offer their input as well with what they saw. So really I think that it’s learning not just from what they’re doing but what they’re saying and kind of taking that and running with it. At the end of the day, they really want to help. That’s become very evident and very clear to everybody who’s been around.”
There are the face-to-face conversations that take place, but it’s also knowing that young pitchers absorb how veterans prepare and handle the major leagues. Cashner and Cobb have also both endured their own challenges this season, from Cobb emerging from his early-season struggles after signing late in the spring to Cashner grinding through a difficult second half. Both pitchers are dealing with injuries: Cobb has a cut on a finger on his pitching hand, and Cashner has a knee problem.
“The thing that I look at is how they are on the mound when things aren’t going their way, when things are going bad,” right-hander Jimmy Yacabonis said. “Because everyone’s good when things are going good. When you struggle and get in a jam, what can you do to reset and get back to that point where you’re making a quality pitch? That’s something, especially at this level, with all the glitz and glamour around you and the third deck, tons of people at the games, you’re on TV all the time — if you ignore all that stuff and see how these guys use mechanisms to get through that kind of stuff. That’s the kind of stuff that’s invaluable. You can’t put a price tag on it because some guys might pick up on something little that can really change your career. It’s huge having them here. It’s huge.”
Yacabonis. 26, said while watching one of Cobb’s recent bullpen sessions he focused on watching one thing — Cobb’s landing foot — to try to help him with his own delivery.
“That’s one thing I’m trying to focus on to get my command where I want it to be — being soft with that front foot,” Yacabonis said. “Didn’t say a word to him, didn’t say a word to anybody. Just locked in on what he was doing just watching that one thing. … They’re two completely different guys, but they do it in the same manner. It’s weird. They have two completely different personalities, but they both get their message across and they’re great competitors and they have a great work ethic. That’s why we’re here — to learn from them, to learn that work ethic from them, that competitiveness and that drive to see that they’re always locked in.”
Both Cobb and Cashner remember being in the young pitchers’ shoes. Cashner went from being a rookie with the Chicago Cubs to being traded to the San Diego Padres early in his career. With constant turnover in San Diego, he became a veteran quickly. Cobb learned from veterans such as James Shields and David Price with the Tampa Bay Rays, saw them get traded and then assumed a leadership role with the younger pitchers who emerged.
“It happens so quick in this game that you go from being the young guy to the older guy overnight it seems,” Cobb said. “I remember being the young guy coming up and being all bright-eyed and looking up to the older guys and wanting to carry my business like they did. … We always had turnover there. At every time there’d be one younger guy or two in the rotation or in the bullpen. You start getting experience with that then. You just become more aware. Anybody can sit back and criticize about how you go about your business, but you need to be the one out there helping them to make sure they don’t fail and make the same mistakes over and over. I think every step, phase of the season, you know what your role is.”
Cashner, who dealt with losing in San Diego, has never been through a season like this one.
“Never,” Cashner said. “But I think at the same time, you have to constantly evaluate yourself. You have to evaluate what you still want out of the game, but I think more for me, there’s still other clubs out there watching. There’s still the fact that you’ve got to post. I think it’s also that there’s so many rookies on this team that you know you’ve got to mentor them whether you want to or not.
“It’s sad to see. There was definitely a chance. We had some big-time-money guys and we had some big-time players. I think it was more sad for me to see the [Kevin] Gausman trade more than anything because he was still under control and I don’t think he really reached his full potential yet. So for me, that one really stings, but at the same time it’s not in my control, so you still show up and try to make the team we have the best team we can.”
While the Orioles know Cashner and Cobb have mentored a young staff, their future with the team is cloudy. Trades were expected to be made at the deadline, but dealing Gausman, who had two years of team control beyond this one, served as notice that the team’s rebuild might be focused more toward the long term.
Cashner is under contract through next season and has a club option for 2020, while Cobb is in the first year of a four-year deal. Depending on who is leading the baseball operations department going forward — executive vice president Dan Duquette was the point man for the team’s July trades, but there’s no guarantee he returns as his contract expires at the end of the year — Cobb and Cashner could become some of the team’s most valuable trade chips if a new general manager looks to make his own series of moves.
For now, though, the veteran pairing fits, and both pitchers have been able to overcome the losing to mentor the next wave of Orioles pitchers.
“It’s a pretty amazing opportunity,” Cobb said. “It’s a big responsibility, but it takes a lot to be that type of guy in the clubhouse. You have to really appreciate the role you’ve been given. Yeah, it stinks that we are where we are, but whether we were winning or losing, this was going to be a role you had to play. Even if we were in first place in the division, [helping] a rookie, it happens.
“To get this opportunity, you have to put in a lot of time in baseball and go through a lot of successes and failures for guys to take what you have to say as knowledge and not just making stuff up. I think you realize you’re in a unique opportunity, that it took a lot to get where you are and you try to do the best you can with what’s in front of you.”