Rays need Cobb to evolve with Shields gone

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Alex Cobb has heard the buzzwords. They fall from lips like snowflakes, the armchair analysis varying in appearance but each line offering the same cold message. 

Tampa Bay Rays pitchers must do more without right-hander James Shields. 

Each member of the rotation must pick up more innings.

Each must become a larger clubhouse presence. 

Each must embrace a greater leadership role. 

Each must evolve to improve.

Cobb is savvy. The right-hander knows what was lost when Shields was sent to the Kansas City Royals in a six-player December deal, a celebrated move that stripped the Rays of an emotional and productive leader.

Shields’ effect in numbers: A team-high 227.2 innings last season with 15 victories in 33 starts, also a club-high, now gone. 

Shields’ effect in impact: A wily veteran who taught others how to work, be accountable and tackle business at hand all day, each day. 

Can Shields’ loss be measured? 

“I don’t think it can,” Cobb told FOXSportsFlorida.com. “People keep asking us to eat up all these innings, but they act like we’re going to have four guys. But we’re still going to have five guys.

“Obviously, Shields threw a lot more innings than the rest of us. But that’s not asking too much from everybody else. That’s a few extra innings from everybody else in the long run.”

Cobb, who went 11-9 with a 4.03 ERA in 23 starts last season, likely will be one of the “everybody else” who will shape the identity of the Rays rotation. On Monday, Rays manager Joe Maddon said Cobb, left-handers David Price and Matt Moore and right-hander Jeremy Hellickson are “pretty much ensconced” in the role. That takes some pressure off Cobb, a 25-year-old Boston native, who won’t have to worry about winning a starting job at Charlotte Sports Park this spring. 

Still, Shields’ absence shines a brighter spotlight on Cobb, who grew up pulling for Red Sox mound heroes such as Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez. Cobb pitched 136 1/3 innings last season, his second in the major leagues, a figure that was 40 2/3 innings less than any other Tampa Bay starter — Hellickson was the closest with 177. 

Maddon cares little for the cliché “stepping up,” and it’s easy to see why. It’s lazy. A franchise with a sound process prepares its talent for the moment when players must compensate for a key loss. This regeneration happens naturally if a system is fine-tuned. 

So in Maddon’s mind, Cobb and others with rotation experience are prepared for a new beginning without Shields. The Rays’ vision chugs along. 

“I’m more of a believer in the situation like this where just their natural maturation sends (them) to the next level of being a starting pitcher,” Maddon said. “And then they’re able to pick up 20 or 25 more innings this coming season.

“How do you do that? By working the process better. … There are different process-oriented situations or thoughts that will permit or help them get deeper into games and thus pick up these innings. But I don’t want them to try to ‘step up.’ I want them to continue to work the process.”

There are a number of ways to do so, as Maddon is quick to mention. Perhaps it’s by gaining a greater command of a fastball, which could allow a pitcher like Cobb to go deeper into starts. Perhaps it’s by improving a training regimen, which could allow a pitcher like Cobb to develop more stamina for the late-game grind — Cobb had two complete games last year, one behind Shields’ team-leading three.

That could all happen one day, but Cobb is focused on the present. He has zeroed in on the basic stuff: Control the opponent’s running game by becoming more efficient out of his stretch; tinker with pitches so that improved results come with feel; and, above all, stay motivated — because a slip could become a longer slide.

“Not that there’s no pressure in spring training, but there’s not that do-or-die type of atmosphere,” Cobb said. “I can relax and work on things I definitely need to work on instead of trying to make a team. … You have to prove yourself every day in this rotation, because if not, they’re going to have somebody else take your place.

“I definitely won’t lose that edge. Every time I take the mound, I know I’ll have to produce or I will be gone. That aspect of the game won’t be lost.”

That’s a mature approach to have, especially when you consider Cobb is part of a group that lost its senior arm. Shields, 31, was the sage veteran; like Cobb, Price (age 27) and Hellickson (25) and Moore (23) continue to develop who they are on the hill. Hunger is a trait that should be coveted by all.

“It wasn’t as much about specific guys as it was having a collection of young guys like Hellickson and Moore and Cobb … guys that we felt like, as we’ve seen over the last five years — brought in a Moore, a Price, Wade Davis — guys that we’ve brought into the fold, mature and progress and will be able to put more innings on their body,” said Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman when asked about how he envisioned the staff after trading Shields. “We think collectively among that group, they will be able to do that.”

Cobb has heard it all: He must do more. He must go longer. He must elevate himself with the greater good in mind. 

Without Shields, reinvention is necessary. But discovery could lead to something unexpected, something better. 

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.