ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Alex Cobb should embrace his status as the man of the future within the Tampa Bay Rays’ rotation. Pitching is like any craft: There’s a progression for the elite in a rise to the top, a journey that includes graduation from newbie to understudy to grizzled master who earns influence among peers.
Cobb lives an interesting stage of his career. This is his fourth major-league season. In previous years, he had grown in the background behind more accomplished names like right-hander James Shields and left-hander David Price.
Early, Cobb represented promise as someone who had shown marked growth since his Rays debut in May 2011 at age 23. Each year, the progress was quantifiable: He pitched 52 2/3 innings with a 3.42 ERA in 2011, 136 1/3 innings with a 4.03 ERA in 2012 and 143 1/3 innings with a 2.76 ERA last season.
But the time is almost here for him to lead the Rays’ rotation. Soon, he could transition from No. 2 to No. 1. This is a product of his maturation and Price’s uncertain future. Cobb is the obvious choice for the ace role when it becomes open later this summer, after this season or some other time in the future.
His return to the rotation Thursday meant one thing: Immediate help for the Rays’ starters, who have labored to last at least six innings since Cobb went on the disabled list with a left oblique strain April 13. He was steady in striking out six and allowing three hits in 6 2/3 innings during the Rays’ much-needed 5-2 victory over the Oakland Athletics in 11 innings at Tropicana Field.
It also meant more: The start of a chance for Cobb, with the Rays in desperate need of a spark after sinking to the bottom of the American League East, to show he’s capable of rising to the moment and displaying the mental strength required of an ace.
"Every time I take the ball, I don’t put a type of expectation or goal to meet that certain game," Cobb said Thursday. "I go in, and I try to execute every single pitch and go nine innings and win the game. That’s my mind-set every single game. Obviously, I don’t meet it every time. But I think as long as I keep my mind-set in that narrow of terms and not try to expand my thoughts … things will work out more often than not."
Things have worked out more often than not in Cobb’s career, when he has stayed healthy. That’s why he’s the clear choice to become the face of Tampa Bay’s rotation one day, if he remains on his current track.
Left-hander Matt Moore, an All-Star last season, tends to struggle with his command. Right-hander Jeremy Hellickson, the 2011 American League Rookie of the Year, was a mess most of last year in posting a career-worst 5.17 ERA. Right-hander Chris Archer, in his second full major-league season, is inconsistent and must show he can develop late-summer stamina.
Cobb, of course, is no finished product. At age 26, he’s on the cusp of his prime. He’s only starting to learn who he can become. The Cobb seen now will be different than the version witnessed in two, three, four years.
Still, the months ahead are a chance to discover. Cobb was right Wednesday in saying that there’s more to a team’s rhythm than one pitcher starting every five games.
He can’t shoulder too much of the burden to lift the Rays from the AL East cellar. There are other areas, beyond pitching, that demand correction: A sloppy defense; an offense that’s anemic too often; and a bullpen, specifically a closer, that at times struggles to protect those precious leads when they come.
Still, these upcoming months will be a prime opportunity for Cobb to add depth to his reputation. The Rays need him to pitch at an optimal level whenever he’s given a chance to salvage their season. This preparation will serve him well when he owns a higher profile in future years.
"He was outstanding," Rays manager Joe Maddon said of Cobb’s 96-pitch outing Thursday, which was part of the effort to snap a four-game slide. "Having been off as long as he had, you saw the stuff, the strike throwing, the competitive nature."
Those are pleasing attributes, each part of Cobb’s profile that makes his future appealing. Already, he has shown glimpses of continuing a recent mentor-mentee tradition within the Rays’ rotation: Shields mentored Price, and Price has returned the favor to Cobb, Moore and Hellickson since Shields was dealt to the Kansas City Royals in December 2012.
Meanwhile, Cobb helped right-hander Jake Odorizzi develop an effective split/change pitch in the spring — dubbed "The Thing Two" — that allowed Odorizzi to earn a job as the Rays’ fifth starter to begin the season.
Rotation leaders, in addition to serving as a staff’s rock, transcend their appearances every five days. Odorizzi’s role is proof of Cobb’s extended value.
His immediate impact, though strong, is only part of the benefit he can provide.
"I felt good," Cobb said, back in front of his stall in the clubhouse, the recovery behind him. "Mentally, I didn’t feel like I was on the DL that long."
He’s back. For him and the Rays, the discovery has just begun.