The Maestro, Alex Cobb. Cobb is a 6'1, 180 pound righty selected in the 4th round of the 2006 draft by the then-Devil Rays. He's the 3rd player to make the major leagues with Tampa Bay from this draft (there are four total) after Evan Longoria and Desmond Jennings, two guys fans are probably familiar with. He was born in Boston but attended Vero Beach High School in Florida, where he's not only the highest alumni ever taken in the draft, but he's the only player to ever reach the majors.
Fans always concern themselves with who the #4 and 5 starters are after spring training, but over a 162 game season, it takes more than five starters due to injuries, rainouts and underperforming players. The Rays experienced that last week against the Twins with a Thursday doubleheader. Jeremy Hellickson and Jeff Niemann started, and that left Tampa Bay with a vacancy for Sunday's start. The team called up Cobb who was already on the 40 man roster and having a great year with AAA Durham, and he made his ML debut.
Cobb features a three pitch mix with a fastball that sits in the 89-92 range, a pitch that he calls a split-change in the 83-86 range and a curveball that sits in the high 70's. In the first inning today, it was clear that he was a bit amped up for his debut. He had some fastballs hit 93 and one even touched 94, and his split-change occasionally came in at 87-88. Despite the overthrowing, Cobb still flashed his potential to Rays fans, getting two swinging strikeouts, one against a right and one against a lefty, and also induced a ground ball with the same pitch.
He had two strikeouts in the first inning, but he wasn't always a strikeout pitcher. Drafted out of high school, Cobb had some projection and was far from a polished product. After signing for an above slot bonus of $400,000, he pitched an unimpressive 8.2 IP for Tampa Bay's Appalachian affiliate in Princeton, West Virginia. Around the draft, his fastball was in the mid, maybe high 80's, and his changeup isn't the pitch it is now.
Cobb started the next season, his first full season as a professional, in extended spring training. He didn't see game action until June when he joined Hudson Valley in the New York Penn League. He had a solid year with the Renegades, posting a 3.54 ERA and 1.34 WHIP. He did a good job pitching to contact, not striking out many batters but also showing good control.
For his efforts, Baseball America rated Cobb as the 14th best prospect in the Rays system after the 2007 season. Eight of the 13 in front of him are now with the Rays, and a 9th should be joining them sometime permanently this year in Desmond Jennings. 2008 would be Cobb's first season in a full season league, Columbus in the South Atlantic League. He showed some improvement in affiliated baseball's last season in Columbus, Georgia, but he still wasn't striking batters out. As a 20 year old, he posted a 3.29 ERA and 1.06 WHIP, walking only 2.3 batters per nine innings, but also only striking out 6.3 per nine, a career low.
Prior to 2009, Rays Prospects ranked Cobb as the team's 10th best pitching prospect. Decent, but it's important to keep in mind that the Rays have always had a deep system, and he was behind five pitchers that are currently in ML rotations, and another in an ML bullpen. It was in this season that something would click for Cobb, and his prospect stock really improved. His K/9 made a big jump to 7.7, a respectable total, and he showed the same control and ability to limit hits. His ERA finished at 3.03 in the inaugural season of the Charlotte Stone Crabs, and he was moving up prospect lists.
Although the WHIP took a pretty big step backwards, but 2010 was still perhaps Alex Cobb's breakout season. Going from high-A to AA is maybe the biggest jump in minor league baseball, and he more than held his own with Montgomery. He struck out more than a batter an inning which is always impressive, and he still only walked 2.6 batters per nine. He was an All-Star in the Southern League, and the Rays sent him to the Arizona Fall League for some extended work. It wasn't a particularly memorable winter in Arizona for Cobb, but he maintained his strikeout stuff and was added to Tampa Bay's 40 man roster. They got a look at him in the beginning of Major League spring training in 2011, and they felt comfortable giving him a spot start with the big club.
In the second inning on Sunday, Cobb allowed his first ML home run. In that inning, he got in trouble with his split-change, which in my opinion, is more splitter than changeup. It really looks like a split grip, and the movement and velocity seems a lot closer to a split. Either way, the two hits he allowed in that inning were both on flat split-changes, and a mid 80's pitch with no movement is essentially a batting practice fastball. The pitch can be effective against batters from both sides with its great movement, but if he hangs it, there's going to be damage.
The 3rd and 4th innings were by far Cobb's easiest on the day. It only took a combined 17 pitches to get six outs, when it took him more than 17 pitches per inning in the 1st, 2nd and 5th. He walked a batter in the 3rd, but he erased the baserunner by inducing a double play with a first pitch curveball. He mixed in his curveball sparingly, only 9 out of 74 pitches, but it increased in effectiveness after that GIDP. In the 4th, Cobb needed just six pitches to quickly retire three batters.
Cobb ran into trouble in the 5th, and he wouldn't finish the inning. He lost command of his stuff, and the Angels started putting together a rally. He started the inning innocently enough with a flyout, although it was on a 2-0 pitch. After that, his declining control finally did him in. He walked consecutive batters, the second of which he had buried in an 0-2 count, and then allowed a single before Joe Maddon took the ball. The final three batters Cobb faced all reached three ball counts, and even though the team was up 5-1, it was clear that the Angels were rallying, and a change was necessary.
It's not exactly mind blowing analysis, but Cobb's biggest problem yesterday was a lack of first pitch strikes. Of the 20 batters he faced, only eight saw first pitch strikes, including one batter that made a first pitch out. He was particularly ineffective with his curveball in 0-0 counts, only throwing two of six for strikes. His split-change can be a very good pitch, but it's not necessarily effective in the strike zone. Of the 13 strikes he threw with the pitch, only one wasn't a swinging strike, foul ball or put in play. Cobb's stuff is obviously good enough to be a major league pitcher, but when his command and control fail him, it's not overpowering enough to compensate for mistakes. He needs to get ahead of batters, and that allows him to throw his split-change to record strikeouts like he has since he reached high-A.
What's in the future for Cobb? The Rays already have one of the deepest rotations in the league, and now that they're playing well again, it appears they won't be trading any of their veterans starters in July. Andy Sonnanstine is an adequate option to make spot starts if necessary, so it's possible that Cobb is only 7th on the organization's depth chart for 2011. He could have a tough time cracking a rotation where every starter is 29 or younger, especially when they're not being paid big money.
In addition to that, Cobb could be lost in the shuffle of a deep minor league system. Rays Prospects ranked him as the 7th best pitching prospect in the system prior to this season, and it's possible the Rays don't have him in their long term plans. According to those rankings, he's the second best SP prospect just on his affiliate behind Alex Torres, and there are a number of high ceiling starters in the levels behind him, including Matt Moore, Chris Archer, Alex Colome among several others. One more thing; this is a team with 10 picks in the first 60 in the MLB draft next month, and it's certain that some of them will be pitchers. Will he go the route of Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson and crack the Rays rotation, or will he go the route of Jason Hammel, Mitch Talbot and Aneury Rodriguez, now property of other teams because of Tampa Bay's ridiculous depth?
Alex Cobb clearly has a future in the majors, but no one knows whether it'll be with the Rays or someone else. As for the present, Cobb was optioned back to the minors after his start, and it's likely that he'll report to Durham and not his house in Tuscany (and if you're thinking of getting a place there, don't bother. There's really nothing available.) He'll anchor the Bulls rotation and continue refining his command. If he gets an extended chance in the majors next time up, he'll make fans very happy.
Photo- Claw Digest