Even after trading away “Big Game” James Shields, the Tampa Bay Rays still has one of the very best starting rotations in the American League.
In fact, that they have so many riches when it comes to starting pitching is the reason why the team was able to make the trade to begin with, and you need to look no further for examples than players like Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore, who will both be more-than-suitable replacements for Shields in 2013.
Then there’s Alex Cobb, the lesser-known 25-year old, who will go into the 2013 season as the team’s fourth starter, but is arguably just as important in making sure that the team’s starting pitching is consistently sound from top to bottom.
Cobb doesn’t have the same kind of top prospect buzz that Moore or Hellickson did, and to be fair, he might not have that kind of upside either, but that doesn’t mean the righty doesn’t have enough talent to hold his own against the league’s best.
In his first extended trial, he did just that. Cobb didn’t make the Rays rotation out of Spring Training in 2012, and only found his way back to the majors when Jeff Niemann‘s season was ended by an unfortunate comebacker.
Though the strike-thrower was at times brilliant (seven innings of two-hit ball with 10 strikeouts on June 17), and at times far too hittable (eight runs on eight innings and 13 hits with just one strikeout during his very next start), Cobb really turned the corner toward the end of July.
This is mostly going to appeal to those who like arbitrary end points, but Cobb was excellent down the stretch: the right-hander allowed more than two earned runs just three times in his final 13 starts starting from July 27, posting a 3.53/1.08 ERA/WHIP, and a 7.30 K/9.
If you take out the 2.2 inning, eight-run debacle in the middle of August, and the 2.53 ERA and 0.96 WHIP were downright brilliant.
These numbers are precisely why, unlike this time last year, Cobb will have job certainty in the Rays’ rotation, and Niemann will be part of a group competing for the final spot.
Having that security for the first time could help Cobb establish his role on the Rays pitching staff going forward. He relies on command on the strike zone and abilty to generate ground balls to succeed, and he improved on both accounts in 2012 over his injury-shortened 2011.
Though not a pitcher with dominating swing-and-miss stuff, Cobb’s steady 7.7 swinging strike percentage should still keep his strikeout rate around 7.0 K/9, and if his walk rate continues to hold steady (3.59 BB/9 in 2011 to 2.64 in 2012), he should see an ERA in the mid to high-3.00s, and a WHIP around 1.25.
Those aren’t going to be ace-like numbers, but the Rays already have David Price and Moore for that. Cobb’s place might not be there, but if he can stay healthy enough to pitch a full season, he might just end up being the best fourth starter in the AL.