All anyone can talk about this offseason is the weird crap happening with free agency. A number of fellas who figured to have career-setting multi-year contracts in hand have sat around for months playing xBox instead. There have been a number of mid-level contracts signed, but just a few market-setting career-kinda deals, you know? Eric Hosmer got $144 million, but the next-best contract for a 1B is Yonder Alonso’s $16 million deal with the Indians. That’s weird. Yu Darvish got $126 million, but Jake Arrieta only got $75 million. Mike Moustakas figured to make something closer to $100 million than to $6.5 million, but guess what. Some folks have talked about collusion, but whatever the reason (I have my theories), it is a big fat buyers’ market right now.
The Jake Arrieta deal is really interesting to me. He signed with the Phillies, they of only 66 wins last season. The Phillies have been bad for years now as they have orchestrated a rebuild, much like your Cincinnati Reds. But they are coming out the other side, or so they hope, and the idea is that while they might not have enough to make a go for it this season, they hope to in 2019 and 2020, and Arrieta will feature prominently for them. That’s the idea, anyway.
The Reds probably see themselves in a similar situation. They probably hoped to be poised to contend this year, but the unmitigated disaster of pitcher injuries and stunted development the last two seasons basically set the rebuild back an entire year. So I think they can reasonably aim to be contenders as of next season. That’s the idea, anyway.
Add to that the bad news regarding Anthony DeSclafani’s oblique and this entire confluence of circumstances right now make for an interesting opportunity. I really like Disco and he is clearly a talented pitcher, but the Reds would be fools to count on his health at this point. So with his injury situation, the depressed free agent market, and the Reds projected window for contention, I think they could be in position to make a smart play for Alex Cobb.
Cobb is currently walking in a slow, anxious circle, hoping for a chair to open up. After Yu and Arrieta, Cobb represents a solid second tier of free agent starters along with the likes of Tyler Chatwood and Lance Lynn, and other recent Tommy John surgery veterans Drew Smyly and Michael Pineda. Take a look at how this crop fared this winter:
Chatwood - three years, $38 million
Lynn - one year, $12 million
Smyly - two years, $10 million
Pineda - two years, $10 million
I think Cobb could make a convincing argument that he is superior to all of these other fellas, but he certainly will not command anything close to what Arrieta got with the Phillies. He has a career ERA of 3.50 with a 3.68 FIP to match. Last year was his first full season since Tommy John surgery, and he started 29 games, threw 179.1 innings, and notched a 3.66 ERA. I think it is reasonable to say he is recovered well from the surgery and not a huge risk going forward (at least, he’s probably not as injury-risky as Disco). He’s not an ace on a good team, but he would likely be the best or second-best starter on the current Reds.
So what does a reasonable contract proposal for Cobb look like? Well, let’s consider. Chatwood signed relatively early in the free agent process, finalizing his deal with the Cubs in early December. The market has cleared up considerably since then, and it looks like maybe he was wise to do so. Lynn, probably Cobb’s closest comparable on the market, settled last week with the Twins for just one year and $12 million. Now, it doesn’t make sense for the Reds to sign a pitcher like Cobb for just this season, since they likely aren’t going to push for the postseason with or without him. So this whole thing only makes sense if they can swing a multi-year deal (three or maybe four years, but I doubt that is necessary).
According to Jeff Passan of Yahoo, Cobb had one four-year offer on the table earlier this winter and a few three-year offers, but he passed on them and the teams subsequently signed someone else. If this is all true, then my guess is that something like three years and $10-11 million per year might get the job done. Cobb has made only about $13 million total in his career so far, so he might be amenable to settling for that kind of security rather than lay up with a pillow contract and try again next year. So can the Reds even afford that?
See, Dick Williams’ Master Plan has always included the accumulation of a war chest of cash for just this kind of occasion. These kinda rebuilds always plan ahead for the addition of a key veteran or two when the time is right. The Reds have trimmed the payroll in recent years to stock this war chest, so they clearly have the money to make it happen. The real question is whether or not now is the right time and Alex Cobb is the right guy.
Given how the market has unfolded, I think the answer to both of those questions is yes. The top spenders in the league, the Yankees and Dodgers, have sat out this free agent market in attempt to get their finances in order so they can make enormous offers to guys like Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Charlie Blackmon, and Clayton Kershaw (who seems likely to opt out of his current deal) next winter. I think this is the main reason the market is so depressed right now. When the biggest spenders aren’t demanding, the supply end of the market feels it. If the Reds want to wait until next winter to make a big free agent signing (Dallas Keuchel looks interesting), they will probably be working in a red-hot bull market.
It looks kinda weird at first glance, but I really think the time is right to make this kind of move. Cobb is a legitimate starter who could do some good work to stabilize the Reds’ shakiest part of the roster and he can probably be had at a nice discount price. In a vacuum, I wouldn’t recommend it. But these are really strange times, and so it makes a lot of sense.