nbc sports

So Far, Phillies Proven Right for Free-Agent Pitching Approach

Though Jake Arrieta struggled Monday night against a bad Marlins team, I was left during his start thinking back to the offseason, when we had no idea whether or not the Phillies would add an accomplished starting pitcher.

Signing Arrieta took some luck for the Phillies. It's not like they went into the winter knowing that he would linger in free agency until the second week of March, or that his own team, the Cubs, would value Yu Darvish over him.

Even with the luck factor, Matt Klentak, Andy MacPhail (and of course John Middleton) deserve credit for pouncing on Arrieta when it became apparent a deal could be struck. We've been over that.

But they deserve even more credit for avoiding two of the other top pitchers on the market - Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb - during that long period before the Arrieta signing.

Entering the offseason, both Lynn and Cobb appeared likely to find multi-year deals. After Darvish and Arrieta, they were widely considered the two best veteran SPs on the market.

Lynn had a 3.30 ERA over his last four seasons, missing 2016 completely after Tommy John surgery but averaging 33 starts in the other four. 

Cobb had posted a 3.36 ERA in his last four seasons, missing 2015 and most of 2016 after Tommy John surgery of his own but otherwise pitching well in the AL East.

MacPhail and Klentak made clear from the moment they arrived in Philly that they were uninterested in multi-year deals for mid-tier pitchers on the wrong side of 30 who'd had serious arm injuries in the past. Lynn and Cobb fit all of those criteria, so in retrospect, it was wrong to think either pitcher was ever on the Phils' radar.

But if the Phillies didn't get Arrieta, many fans would have been upset about them not landing Lynn or Cobb, who also remained unsigned until well after spring training started. Innings needed to be eaten and the rotation was rail-thin beyond Aaron Nola.

It turns out the Phils were right on both counts. A month into the season, Lynn has been a disaster with the Twins, posting an 8.37 ERA and allowing 50 baserunners in 23⅔ innings. Cobb has been even worse, allowing 22 runs and 37 hits in 17⅔ innings with the Orioles. Minnesota and Baltimore are a combined 0-9 in the nine starts Lynn and Cobb have made.

The Twins are on the hook for only this year with Lynn ($12 million), so it won't be a crippling long-term move.

Cobb is a different story. He's in the first of a four-year, $57 million contract for an Orioles team that rarely spends money and already looks destined for mid-July selling. A month into Cobb's contract, the O's have to be regretting it.

If the Phillies knew they would've been adding 2014 Lynn or Cobb, then it would've made sense. But that's just not what happens in free agency, where it's far more common to regret paying for past performance than get a pleasant surprise.

It's evident that free-agent valuations have changed leaguewide, especially with starting pitchers. It's not difficult to see why; just look at the past few days around the National League. Johnny Cueto and Jacob deGrom, two consistent, top-of-the-rotation arms, are suddenly facing season-ending elbow injuries. Pitching is so fragile, and more often than not, the price tag proves to not be worth it.

In retrospect, the Phillies would have been unwise to pursue either mid-tier arm. Even when compared to the Zach Eflins and Ben Livelys of the world, neither Lynn nor Cobb would have been a massive upgrade in terms of pure stuff. They wouldn't have catapulted the Phillies from a 75-win team to a club on the brink of the playoffs.

Arrieta may not either, but he's at least moved the needle on the field with his performance and off of it by showing young Phillies pitchers how to prepare and react to jams.

With the jury still out on Vince Velasquez, Eflin and Lively, the Phillies will probably have rotation needs again this winter. When that time comes, think back to how this offseason played out. Because even though the Phils will be a year closer to contention, they won't be going beyond one or two years for a pitcher who was a No. 3 starter at his peak. 

Copyright CSNPhily
Contact Us