Alex Cobb has arrived back at a point in his career that looks the same in some aspects and completely foreign in others. The final year of his contract. Shuffled priorities as he stands on the deck and peers out again at free agency.
Been there, but doing it differently.
Cobb isn’t in the hunt for another four-year deal, which the Orioles gave him at a cost of $57 million before the 2018 season to mark the largest for a pitcher in franchise history. He turned 33 in October, is entering a new phase of his professional life and is unsure how the market is going to treat him with the lost revenue in baseball due to the pandemic and the 5.10 ERA and 1.419 WHIP he’s accumulated in his 41 starts after leaving the Rays.
The March signing and abbreviated spring training forced Cobb into a game of catch-up during his first summer in Baltimore, and he was tormented by recurring blisters on his pitching hand that removed him from multiple outings. The chance to start on opening day in 2019 dissolved because of a hip injury that required surgery after only three appearances - he also underwent a procedure on his knee - and 2020 provided its own set of unique challenges and frustrations.
A full circle to 2021 feels more like a figure 8 with sharp turns and plenty of bumps.
“It’s incredible. I just can’t believe how quickly those four years went,” Cobb said yesterday in a phone conversation.
“You can obviously see it didn’t start off great for my career there, and then the surgery hit and wiped out a full year, and then last year was its own difficulties. So when you look at it like that, you can see how quickly it went and why it went quickly, but to sit here and think that it’s my last year of the deal, it’s a time-warp feeling.
“I think, mindset-wise, if you want to compare my last free agent year to this year, it’s a completely different mindset. I think then I was very locked into trying to get the best contract that I could possibly get for my family. At that point of your career you’re trying to go to the best situation that you can possibly go to, and that’s setting your family up, that’s winning. You have all these high expectations when you’re going into free agency. Now I look at it more as just an opportunity to keep playing.
“You see a lot of your friends that you’ve come up with, guys you played against, their careers coming to an end. You think about how quickly your career has gone to get here, and now I think you want to preserve it as long as you possibly can. So you have a new outlook on why you want to continue to play. You don’t want this ride to be over with, because once it is done, it’s final and you’re not going to go back and continue playing later on in your life. So you want to make the most of it and enjoy it and try to continue playing as long as you can.”
Cobb is one of the few trade chips remaining on the table, but executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias indicated that he’d rather hold onto the veteran right-hander, who can earn $15 million, and perhaps revisit the subject over the summer.
“Honestly, you telling me is the first I have heard or thought about the trade,” Cobb said. “I haven’t even asked my agents about it, which is odd because I have been more involved and had more questions that I wanted answered earlier on in my career, and even last year during the season I’d be more interested. I don’t know why I haven’t had that urge to know. Maybe because there’s so much uncertainty with everything going on.
“I think I saw how fragile baseball is and your career in general could be this year that I’m more just thankful to be playing right now and I don’t get caught up in all the smaller things that go along with it. Not that they’re small, but it’s not the big-picture things that I’m focused on right now and I’m just very focused on getting back to where I want to be in my career and taking care of my business and then leaving other people to their own business and trusting that Mike is going to do what’s best for the organization.
“If he finds a deal that helps the Orioles, he’s going to do that. As I’ve gotten older I haven’t paid as much attention to it.”
Perhaps that’s because Cobb is more distracted these days.
He’s in the Seattle area again to receive more input from instructors at Driveline Baseball, the data-driven performance center, and check on his progress after an earlier meeting that marked the first of his professional career.
Minor league catchers Brett Cumberland and Maverick Handley also worked out at the center this year. Pitcher Brandon Bailey was in the middle of a session last December when one of his personal trainers approached him with news that the Orioles selected him in the Rule 5 draft.
“After the season I came out here to get evaluated, see if there’s any flaws in my delivery and had them write up a program specific to me to kind of fix any of the flaws that were showing,” Cobb said.
“I really didn’t take much of a breaking, throwing-wise. I’ve kind of continued from the season, although it’s been tamed and tampered down a little bit to progress slowly through the offseason. I’m just back here now getting re-evaluated and seeing if the drills that we’re doing are having us on the right path. Hopefully by spring training it will be kind of cleaned up and ready to go.”
What motivated an older dog to try a newer approach?
“I think that a couple things,” he said. “Just feeling more comfortable on the mound, trying to get back to feeling the way I have previously in my career. And you can only hear so many testimonies of people going and trying it and having great results before you yourself realize that you have to at least go and experiment with it and see if it’s something that you feel like can help you in your career. Those two things, I felt like I needed to give it a shot.”
There isn’t a program or device in existence that can thoroughly prepare an athlete for everything that transpired over the summer. The sport’s shutdown and restart. The new rules and risks. The protests over racial inequality and police brutality that prompted the Orioles to stay in the clubhouse rather than play the Rays at Tropicana Field.
Cobb had a 2.61 ERA in his first four starts and opponents batted .175. He held the Rays to two runs over six innings and the Red Sox to one run over seven in his last two outings to lower his ERA from 5.03 to 4.30.
But in between, from Aug. 17 to Sept. 11, Cobb went 0-3 with a 7.32 ERA in 19 2/3 innings and surrendered five home runs, and opponents batted .337.
“It was, hands-down, the most emotionally draining season I’ve ever been a part of, just the day-to-day. Not knowing if you were going to show up to the park the next day or not, and when you do, the different protocols you had to go through. And then there was a lot of social unrest going on during the summer and dealing with that and just the climate of everything going on I think was difficult for everybody in the country to deal with, and it made it a little more difficult to deal with the day-to-day, baseball-wise,” said Cobb, who was placed on the injured list due to a cold that mimicked the symptoms of COVID-19.
“I think once we got on the field it was a little bit more normalcy than it may have looked like, at least for me personally. I was able to really feel like I’m a part of a normal season out there, but the off-the-field stuff was very taxing.”
Union leaders are pushing for a 162-game season and full pay for players. Owners are skeptical that a return to normal is a realistic pursuit, which threatens to bring more dissension in the industry.
“I think we all have hopes that it will be, with the vaccine news, and at the very least us knowing what last year brought and having a little bit of perspective of what we could possibly be facing would make it a lot easier,” Cobb said.
“Last year was all just so new and it was just so different from our normal everyday life in baseball that it made it a little more difficult. So if we have an idea of what we’re getting into and if the protocols stay the same, I think that will make it a lot easier, but hopefully we see a lot of improvements.”
Cobb sees better days ahead for the Orioles, approving of the methods used in an attempt to get them back to contender status - even if he isn’t around for it.
“If you just look at the jump we made from ‘19 to ‘20, I mean, it’s an incredible accomplishment in itself,” he said. “You start to see not only the talent that a lot of those guys have who are coming up, but the way they take care of their business. I was talking to a player in our organization recently about just how much more organized and how much better of a plan younger guys have now coming up than they ever did when I was coming up, and that’s just a quick jump in the last five, six, seven years. It’s pretty remarkable to see.
“It’s very impressive, the guys that we have, and it’s very impressive the size of the core of the guys that they’re going to have to build around. I have no way to predict when the organization’s going to reach the point that they’re comfortable with to go ahead and really make a run at it and put their best product on the field. That’s way above where I stand in the organization. But it’s definitely exciting to see what they have coming up and to really be around at this point to help and to just be an ear for a lot of these guys to talk to and to hear from them, as well.”
* Elias was a guest yesterday on MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM and repeated that he expects outfielder Trey Mancini to be full-go in spring training.
“It’s hard to speak to that with total certainty, just because he missed the whole year and there’s just very few cases like this in baseball history that we can point to, but he’s got his weight, he looks exactly the same,” Elias said. “He’s big, he’s strong, he’s running, he’s not experiencing any symptoms, so I don’t know, we’ll see. But we’re fully expecting that he’s going to be, Day One, a full participant of spring training and it’s just going to be a normal season for him.”
There wasn’t anything new from Elias. More of a recap, including how catcher Adley Rutschman is going to begin 2021 at Double-A Bowie if there’s a minor league season and Mountcastle is penciled in as the Orioles’ left fielder, with opportunities to play first base and serve as the designated hitter.