If it is a necessary trend that Tommy John injuries increase with velocity and pitching stress, and both are on the rise, then it would also necessarily be a trend that free agent pitchers will be more and more riddled with injury. That is most certainly the case this year, and while “silent collusion” has been an overarching factor in the decline of free agent deals, inherent risk cannot be thrown out altogether. Of the top free agent starters this year, just Jake Arrieta has not had an UCL under the knife.
With Yu Darvish off the board, signed to a six-year, $126 million deal by the Cubs, the best remaining starters are Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn, and Arrieta. Because Lynn has drawn no interest from the Yankees and Arrieta likely cannot be had under the luxury tax without additional transactions, our focus turns to Cobb. He is rumored by Jon Heyman to be a primary starting pitching target, if the Yankees do go that route.
Cobb, as I mentioned, is of the aforementioned Tommy John group, having undergone surgery in May of 2015. It chopped nearly two full years off of his pre-free agency years, meaning his counting stat totals are actually pretty light: 700 innings pitched, with an 89 ERA-. That’s actually a very small sample size for a free agent pitcher, and even smaller when you consider that his repertoire has changed since his surgery:
The most eyebrow-raising part of that chart is the decline in his splitter. Travis Sawchik of FanGraphs exhaustively talks about how that pitch has declined in effectiveness; essentially, his injury forced him to use the pitch in a more vertical-releasing manner, reducing the amount of deceptiveness it had pre-surgery.
Matthew Trueblood of Baseball Prospectus has a similar warning regarding his profile. PECOTA projects Cobb for just 0.4 WARP in 2018, largely because of past injury, but also because comparable pitchers usually tank around age 30:
“Of those 30 comparable pitchers, only six pitched as many as 150 innings and had a cFIP better than 100 in their age-29 seasons... [PECOTA] is probably at least somewhat wrong about Cobb: it’s not at all likely that he turns into a pumpkin overnight, [but] ... It’s right enough, however, to give everyone pause, and while Cobb was never in line for a contract the size of those signed by Jordan Zimmermann, Matt Cain, and Homer Bailey in recent years.”
All of this being said, Cobb is still a valuable option for the Yankees. Consider a few factors, first among them being the quality of pitching depth by FanGraphs’ depth chart:
Now, look at that in comparison to Cobb’s projection of 135 innings and 1.7 fWAR. There are seemingly 110 near-replacement level innings pitched by Luis Cessa, Domingo German, and Domingo Acevedo, not counting the likes of, say, Chance Adams. It is also worthy to note that he would be, on a per-innings basis, more valuable than Jordan Montgomery or CC Sabathia, despite the fact they are projected for more innings.
It is said that teams need something like 32 starts out of pitchers not in the starting rotation, and that doesn’t account for the routine occurrence of pitcher injuries. In many cases, it could be upwards of 60. The Yankees, as of today, have exactly five starters, and we know that that isn’t enough.
With the Yankees in the close playoff race they are likely to be in in 2018, it is nearly inexcusable for the team to hope that that is enough, especially when they have a very, very special team with Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sanchez, and Luis Severino. Every year you waste is a year of their primes wasted.
Signing Cobb, despite all the aforementioned risks, would still only cost the Yankees a measly $15 million (based on estimates) of average annual value, bringing them under the luxury tax. It would also eat up innings in a rotation that will need an innings-eater in the best of circumstances, and will be essential in the worst of circumstances. It would not only solidify their depth, but it could prevent them from having to overpay at the deadline and preserve their prospect depth as well. It’s not the best option possible, and there are no perfect options out there, but Cobb is the best one available. And if he brings back the splitter successfully, he could end up being a pleasant surprise.