Aaron Cook could have chosen an easier path this offseason.
The right-hander, who turns 33 next week, endured the worst season of his career in 2011 with a Rockies franchise for whom he had pitched during his entire 15-season professional career. An All-Star in 2008, Cook endured a season that was riddled with injuries and mound struggles, going 3-10 with a 6.03 ERA in 18 appearances (17 starts).
Still, the sinkerballer had enjoyed a strong performance as recently as 2009, and several years of success – despite pitching in Coors Field – ensured that he would have opportunities this winter.
There were teams willing to give the pitcher major league contracts (two teams made such offers, Cook said). He could have stayed in the National League, which would have offered the benefit of both familiarity and lesser lineups. He could have sought to make a home in a pitcher’s ballpark in an effort to find the perfect environment in which to put up strong numbers in 2012 and to rebuild his value for another run at free agency next winter.
He chose none of those things. Instead, Cook signed a minor league deal with the Red Sox (which would offer a big league salary of $1.5 million in 2012 if he is added to the big league roster), drawn to the opportunity for any number of reasons.
“I love being here in Colorado. I still make my home here in Colorado. But I figured that after being with the organization since ’97, they were ready to move in a different direction and I was ready for a fresh start myself – new organization, new coaches, a whole new outlook,” Cook said by phone. “If I was going to do a minor league deal with anybody, I didn’t want to come back to the Rockies on a minor league deal. I figured that Boston was going to be a really good fit. I like the organization. I know some of the guys on the team. [Pitching coach] Bob McClure is a guy who I give a lot of credit for helping to get me to the big leagues when I was in the minor leagues with the Rockies.
“I feel like if I’m healthy, I can pitch in any league. Why not come to Boston, a team that’s a contender year-in, year-out?” Cook continued. “The people in Boston just love the Red Sox. That’s huge. I’ve been playing for the Rockies my whole career. When the Red Sox would come here, there’d be 40,000 Red Sox fans here in Coors Field. To have that kind of following, that kind of support, with an organization that has the history that they do, it’s something that I think will be really neat to be a part of, and hopefully I can be a part of it for more than a year.
“I don’t feel like I have to pick a league or pick a ballpark that’s going to make me look good. If I’m healthy and I’m pitching the way I know I can, it doesn’t matter where I’m at or who I’m pitching against. I can go out there, give a team a chance to win and hopefully be on a contending ballclub.”
All of that led Cook to embrace the opportunity to pass on opportunities that came with more security in favor of a chance to enter the competition for one of the Red Sox’ two open starts at the back end of the rotation.
If the right-hander can reclaim his form of 2004-09 -- during which he went 57-43 with a 4.09 ERA (117 ERA+) despite pitching half of his games at mile-high altitude -- then he would represent a strong addition to the Sox rotation. Given that the Sox were offering Cook a minor league deal, that was a low-risk gamble for them to take.
Of course, Cook must prove that he has moved beyond his struggles of 2010-11 if he is to win a spot in the Red Sox rotation. In the last two years, he’s gone a combined 9-18 with a 5.49 ERA, with nearly as many walks (89) as strikeouts (110).
But to Cook’s mind, there is every reason to believe that he is capable of returning to the form he showed prior to these last two challenging seasons.
“This is the first offseason that I’ve had in about two or three years where I was completely healthy and I was able to do all the work I needed to do,” said Cook.
Two offseasons ago, in an effort to counter a turf toe issue that hampered him in the 2009 season, he felt that he dropped too much weight (down to what Rockies observers at the time thought was a rail-thin 200 pounds). In 2010, his season was ended by a Joey Votto line drive that broke his leg and the recovery process left him unable to build up his legs for 2011. He also dealt with shoulder inflammation that restricted his ability to build arm strength in the offseason. Then, early in spring training, he broke his finger, an injury that impacted his feel for the ball all season.
Without that string of injuries (and its corresponding impact on his performance), Cook might not have been available to the Red Sox on a minor league deal. The Sox saw an opportunity to sign a pitcher who has always gotten groundballs in volume, has what is considered to be great makeup and work ethic and who has been good when healthy.
So, is he healthy? Cook believes his physical woes are behind him.
“This offseason, it’s been really good. I’ve put on another 10 pounds of muscle. I feel strong. I feel like my arm is in the best shape it’s been in in a long time,” said Cook, who said he's closer to what he considers his ideal weight of 215 or 216 pounds. “That’s really huge for me, just going into spring training knowing I don’t have any health issues, and all I need to do is go out and worry about pitching the way I know how to pitch.
“Now, I feel like I don’t have anything in the back of my head weighing me down, nothing to worry about – no arm issues, no broken leg, no broken finger. It’s all about being focused on pitching and nothing else. To be in that state of mind, it, I think, makes a world of difference going into spring training when you don’t have these little nagging things to worry about. It’s all about being focused on who you are.
"I had my last start of the year last year, when I was healthy, and I had my career high in strikeouts, and did it in five innings. That tells me that I still have what it takes to compete at this level and be good at this level. I’m just looking to build off stuff like that.”
Of course, it is one thing to make such a claim. It is another to place a bet on one’s own health.
That is precisely what Cook did in accepting a minor league deal. He could have sought a deal that had a guaranteed major league salary.
Instead, he trusted where his offseason conditioning has brought him to the point where he was more concerned about where he might end up this year than the type of contract that it would take to get him there.
“If I had concerns about my health, it might have been different and I might have looked for more of a major league deal. I feel like, if I can go to spring training and be who I am, it’s not going to matter that I’m on a minor league deal, that I can go out there, win a spot and help us win some baseball games,” said Cook. “It was something I really, really wanted to do, and Bob McClure was a pitching coach I really, really wanted to pitch for at the big league level.”
McClure, after all, had worked with Cook from 2001-04 in the Rockies organization, initially when he was in Single-A and then again when both were with Triple-A Colorado Springs.
Cook suggests that McClure was critical to his success and allowing him to understand the craft of pitching to contact as a sinkerballer. And so, it comes as little surprise that McClure was part of the recruiting pitch to Cook, talking with him both early in the offseason (after McClure had been hired as a sort of roving pitching instructor in the organization) and again after he became the pitching coach.
The reunion, Cook believes, can be fruitful for both the pitcher and his team. The right-hander was mindful of the comments recently made by Sox officials that the team did not feel it needed to add more starters this offseason. He will arrive in Fort Myers by Monday in an effort to begin the process of trying to prove that forecast accurate.
“It means a lot to me that they feel they’ve got all the pieces in place and a good enough staff to compete,” said Cook, who looks forward to the competition for rotation spots that will also include Daniel Bard, Alfredo Aceves, Vicente Padilla, Carlos Silva, Andrew Miller and Felix Doubront. “I’m excited for it. I’m looking forward to it. And I think we can definitely have a really good year as a pitching staff.”