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Alex Cobb Of The Rays, As A Trade Target For The Pirates

Alex Cobb is an obtainable starting pitcher for the Pirates that is a ground ball machine.

Alex Cobb is an obtainable starting pitcher for the Pirates that is a ground ball machine.

After the final bottle of champagne was sprayed in Progressive Field’s visitors’ clubhouse and the last time ‘billy goat’ and ‘curse’ were mentioned in the same sentence, the MLB offseason began in earnest. Teams that were already eliminated, both after the regular season and in the postseason, have been getting a headstart of their planning.

As I’ve mentioned (and virtually every other person that writes about baseball), this year’s free agent market is awful. It’s especially barren on the starting pitching front. Naturally, the attention has turned to the trade market for solutions to pitching deficiencies. The problem is, though, that there aren’t exactly a plethora of teams looking to move arms from some vast surplus they’re sitting on.

Sure, the Mets are on paper loaded with arms. But every one of their Big Five arms (Harvey, Syndergaard, de Grom, Matz, Wheeler) has dealt with, or is currently recovering from, an arm injury in the past year. They have holes on offense that may force them to trade one of these guys, but it would have to be for a pretty special player. If the White Sox correctly decide they need to rebuild, both Chris Sale and Jose Quintana could be on the market, but I wouldn’t be totally surprised if they try to augment the core and make a run at the AL Central next year. This brings us to the Rays.

The Rays are again talking about shaving payroll, even though they’re only running around $75M payrolls as it is. You’ll see all sorts of breathless click-bait posts this offseason about how the Pirates should pursue Chris Archer from the Rays. Yes, he’s fantastic and would look delightful in a Pirates uniform. But stop and think about this logically for a nanosecond — Chris Archer is young and under cheap team control until 2021, if his options are picked up. He’s a borderline #1/#2 level pitcher. The Rays have designs on being competitive long before then, so why would they actually trade him now? Sure, you could get 2-3 players or a bushel of prospects, but that would be 1 step forward, 2 steps back for them. Layer on top that it is hard to envision the Pirates giving up the players/prospects needed to make that deal.

Instead, set one’s sights slightly lower in the scratch-and-dent section of the Tampa Bay Rays — Alex Cobb. Clint Hurdle has recently stated that the Pirates had sort of strayed from the cornerstone of their pitching philosophy by not getting enough groundball pitchers. Cobb has a career groundball rate of 56.3%. For comparison, Charlie Morton has a career rate of 55.4%, but unlike Morton, Cobb is actually a good pitcher and not a mental midget.

Cobb has an injury history, though. He had Tommy John surgery in May 2015 and was out until September of this past season. He returned in September for five starts to solely knock the rust off, so disregard his ghastly 8.59 ERA/5.60 FIP. He was locating the ball well and his command returned to form (2.86 BB/9). He served up plenty of spicy meatballs from just trying to be around the zone and locate, but again, this was essentially a Spring Training for him. Cobb also took a comebacker to the skull in 2013 and missed two months with a concussion and the resulting after-effects.

But when he’s on the mound and healthy, he’s fantastic. His 2013 and 2014 seasons for your review:

  • 2013 — 8.41 K/9, 2.83 BB/9, 0.82 HR/9, 2.76 ERA/3.36 FIP, 2.5 WAR
  • 2014 — 8.06 K/9, 2.54 BB/9, 0.60 HR/9, 2.87 ERA/3.23 FIP, 2.8 WAR

Alex Cobb is a low-end #2 (if he can pitch a full season) or a high-end #3 level pitcher. And with him missing the 2015 season and only getting 5 starts in 2016, Alex Cobb is projected by MLB Trade Rumors to stay frozen at his 2016 salary of $4M for 2017. This upcoming season is the last year of team control by the Rays on the 29-year old pitcher, so he’s a much more realistic trade target to obtain.

Let’s be generous and give Cobb a 3 WAR season next year, allowing for about 180 innings (his career high is 166) and the bump of moving from the AL to the NL. At $8M/WAR, he’s a $24M value. Subtracting his $4M salary and you’re looking at $20M of surplus value. From our work on Surplus Value for Top 100 prospects, that equates to a hitter ranked by Baseball America in the #51-100 ($22.4M) or slightly over a pitcher ranked #51-100 ($16.5M). The Pirates had three players on the midseason Baseball America Top 100 — Kevin Newman #51, Mitch Keller #52, and Ke’Bryan Hayes #72.

I’m not overly enamored with Newman, but I would have some slight hesitation parting with him for one year of Cobb. I would definitely not want to move Keller, as I’m quite high on him, even though he is 3 years away at least. I would move Hayes in a flash to get Cobb, as I don’t see him as a long-term starter. There are countless other permutations of trades that wouldn’t involve Top 100 prospects that the Pirates could employ. Maybe a Steven Brault-led package would entice them with another small piece, like Dovydas Neverauskus. A cost-controlled, back-end MLB-ready starter and reliever prospect is at least in the discussion.

We’ve been big fans of Ivan Nova’s work here at TPOP. But it’s entirely reasonable to say that Cobb could equal Nova’s 2017 production at a fraction of the $14M/year that Nova can expect to command on the free agent market. Many fans would say this is the Pirates being cheap, but if you can get equivalent production at a discounted rate, why wouldn’t you do that? The Pirates have to be careful where they invest their payroll dollars. They have to be extra judicious in a year where they need two, maybe three, starters to round out the rotation. There’s only so much money to go around.

Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.