Cobb begins spring training as elder statesman of Rays rotation

Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Alex Cobb aims for the first 200-plus-inning season of his major-league career after a new watermark of 166 1/3 last season.

Mark Duncan/AP

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — At age 27, he says being tagged as the veteran of his rotation feels weird, but he better become used to becoming considered the sage voice.

Old enough to be seasoned, yet young enough to smash ceilings, Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Alex Cobb stands on a bridge between gains made and discoveries to come.

Weird? Wacky? Way out there?

Whatever it is, this is his way of life.

"I still feel like I just got called up the other day," Cobb said Monday at Charlotte Sports Park, referencing his debut with the Rays in 2011. "I don’t feel like at 27 years old, you should be the oldest guy on staff. But it’s something that I don’t feel like is going to take as much responsibility as maybe staffs have had to have in the past. I’ve got a lot of guys who have had a lot of time and know how to handle their business very well."

Cobb begins this spring as the Mr. Senior of the Rays’ rotation, which is little different than his position after July 31 last season, when David Price was sent to the Detroit Tigers and a post-Price evolution took place, a development that redefined how everyone looked at Tampa Bay’s starting pitching.

Cobb? He was vaulted from the ace-in-waiting label to The Guy, a player who overcame a mild concussion in 2013 and a left oblique strain early last year and grew from it all, a player who’s wise and articulate enough to give an accurate reading of the Rays’ barometer.

So the year has changed, but this whole leader-of-the-rotation thing is old hat for Cobb, who aims for the first 200-plus-inning season of his major-league career after a new watermark of 166 1/3 last season.

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This is spring, but his leadership traits have long sprung, the grinder’s mentality clear to those who work with him.

"From the time I’ve been here, I’ve seen it first hand, and I’m guessing that it went on last year also," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "Cobber has handled a lot of things, adversity, in his playing career. I know the concussion is a big thing to come back from. When you deal with some of those things, you build some confidence. And the way he goes about it, I think people look at him and say, ‘Man, this guy, he’s in here every day. He’s early. He pays attention to what he’s doing.’"

So after entering the Rays’ system in 2006 as a fourth-round pick, Cobb has gone from growing behind Price and James Shields to becoming the tip of Tampa Bay’s pitching spear, a role that has produced recent stars within a franchise that has thrived because of its starters. For now, though, Cobb is more concerned with finding a rhythm than achieving fame as the Rays attempt to prove skeptics wrong in a season that begins as an open-ended question.

The work was on display late Monday morning under an overcast sky, with Cobb and catcher Rene Rivera paired together in a bullpen session. Cobb knows Tampa Bay’s rotation must be more chorus group that solo act to succeed. He knows he must do his part.

"Not bad," Rivera said after one pitch.

"That’s not it," Cobb told the catcher, tilting his head from the mound. "It’s supposed to do that."

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"You trying to go up or down?" Rivera said after another throw.

"I was trying to go up and in," Cobb said.

"We just have such a close group," Cobb said of the rotation. "Everybody really sticks around in the offseason and gets our training in at the Trop. It was never really a moment where you’re sitting back thinking, ‘How am I going to get this group together and make sure we’re all on the same page?’ It’s such a smooth group throughout, from our friendship to driving each other and making sure we’re all staying motivated. There’s really not much work to be done. So it’s not like years past where certain guys have to call people up and make sure they’re staying on their business.

"We all understand that there’s going to be a lot on our shoulders," he continued. "So it’s not that typical leader-type of mentality that you have to take and have one guy have that personality. It hasn’t been something that we’ve needed. So that veteran presence, I guess, hasn’t really been needed out of me."

Still, the veteran presence doesn’t hurt. Archer is 26, Drew Smyly and Matt Moore are 25, and Jake Odorizzi is 24. With Moore out until at least June recovering from Tommy John surgery, Alex Colome is the favorite to fill out the rotation at a ripe 26.

Everyone in this young group can do more. Archer led the Rays with 194 2/3 innings last year, and Odorizzi followed with 168, before Cobb finished third with his total. Smyly, meanwhile, threw 47 2/3 in seven starts after the trade deadline.

To reach 200 innings, goal No. 1 for Cobb should be to avoid an extended absence. He can be a bulldog, with one of the sharpest bites the Rays own on the mound. But Tampa Bay must see more of him in its journey into the Cash Era.

"Just lead by example a lot of time," said Odorizzi, who earned a rotation spot last spring, in part, because of Cobb’s help. "He was a guy who did that last year for us. He went out and threw a good game, and we kind of all followed. Just leading in that type of way, I would think, is going to be the main thing. We’re all very familiar with each other. We’re all a very close-knit group. So I think we’ll all work well with each other. It’s just another year together."

New year, new opportunity, same Cobb.

At age 27, more ceilings await to be broken.

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