Oct 7, 2013; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Alex Cobb (53) throws a pitch during the second inning of game three of the American League divisional series against the Boston Red Sox at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Should the Tampa Bay Rays Extend Alex Cobb?

Alex Cobb came into his own last year, his third in the majors. The 25 year-old won 11 games and lost only 3, and his 2.76 ERA led all Tampa Bay Rays starters. Despite the line drive that took him out for almost two months, Cobb achieved career highs in innings (143) and strikeouts (134), and improved his strikeout rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio for the third straight year. Yet despite his impressive performance, Cobb made just $502,200 in 2013, and he will not be arbitration-eligible until after the 2014 season. Cobb showed flashes of being a frontline starter pitcher, and he now could be the type for the Rays to sign him to a team-friendly extension before his value goes through the roof. But pitchers are always injury risks, and Cobb is no exception after injuries have limited him three of the last four years. Is an Alex Cobb contract extension worth the risk for the Rays?

The Rays’ extensions with pitchers have been relatively modest. Other than Scott Kazmir‘s ill-fated extension prior to the 2008 season, they have never guaranteed a pitcher even $15 million in a deal. They gave Matt Moore a five-year $14 million contact with three options in 2012, Wade Davis a four-year, $12.6 million contact with three options in 2011, and James Shields a four-year, $11.25 extension with three options in 2008. But none of those pitchers had as good of a track record as Cobb prior to the season where they agreed to sign long-term.

To fully understand what the market is for young, promising pitchers, we have to look beyond the Rays and see what other teams gave to players with similar service time situations to Cobb. In 2011, Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane gave a five-year extension to a pitcher, Trevor Cahill, who had just won 18 games at the age of 23. The deal guaranteed Cahill $30.3 million over five years, with club options for 6th and 7th years. Last year, the Chicago White Sox signed Chris Sale to a five-year, $32.5 million extension with two club option years, a deal that now looks like one of the biggest steals in baseball as Sale has blossomed into an ace. Then there are Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz of the Boston Red Sox. Prior to the 2009 season, Lester got five years and $30 million with one option while Buchholz agreed to terms with Boston in 2011 for four years and $29.945 million with two options. Of the four, Buchholz seems like a good comparison because he was coming off a great 2010 but was also a clear injury risk–but he actually received the highest annual value of anyone.

Does Cobb’s performance merit a deal like any of those four? Cobb’s injury last year was a freak accident and he recovered well. He was tremendous while he was on the mound and capped it off with a huge performance in the AL Wild Card Game. But Cobb has missed 151 days due to injury the last four years according to Baseball Prospectus and it would be safer for the Rays to see how Cobb pitched in 2014 before making an offer. A good 2014 from Cobb would cause his value to skyrocket–but can the Rays really afford to guarantee $30 million to a pitcher yet throw 150 innings in a season in a major leagues?

Alex Cobb appears to be a levelheaded young man who takes the long view. He attended Vero Beach High in Central Florida, and he may be willing to make a long term deal with the team to achieve financial security and to stay closer to home. But it is hard to see the Rays giving him the type of money he would be looking for. The Rays may be willing to take a chance by extending Cobb if the number is right, but his injury history will likely keep them from offering him an extension in the range of his comparable pitchers. The Rays’ best strategy might be to offer Cobb a deal like Wade Davis’–for example, five guaranteed years for $15.5 million and two option years with eight-figure salaries. If Cobb takes it, the Rays would lock in another solid pitcher for an affordable price. If not, the Rays will likely pass. After all, they still control Cobb’s rights for the next few years even without an extension, and they can reevaluate whether a long-term deal is worthwhile at a later time.

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  • Ryan

    To answer the title question, a definite, resounding yes. Cobb is the closest the Rays have coming up to a Shields-type pitcher, which I kinda miss having in that rotation.

    • Robbie_Knopf

      But the problem with all these extensions is that they have to be team-friendly or they don’t work for the Rays. The bottom line is that $30 million is no longer team-friendly for the Rays. Ryan, do you think that Cobb is good enough to warrant an extension does not favor the Rays nearly as much as any deal before?

      • Ryan

        Let me put it this way: I feel more confident that Cobb would be worth the extra cost than say Hellickson or even Archer (not more than Matt Moore, but he’s already been extended so I don’t really count him). I mean, the only things that really held Cobb back last year were him not going as deep into games as he could have cause he wasn’t pitching to contact as much as he could, and him getting beaned in the head. Both of those could be rectified this season (injury just from better luck, and Hanigan and more experience fixing the other issue). Cobb could be a real workhorse if those two things go better this year, he’s certainly got the stuff and the maturity.

  • TheRealRyan

    The problem with a Wade Davis comparison is he was only one year into his career, not two like Cobb. Just using the Davis contract as a framework and we are looking at a 4/16.1 with 2 options at $8 and $10. This doesn’t even take into account that Cobb has been much better to this point than Davis was at the time. Cobb is also now only 1 year away from making some money in arb, not 2 like Davis.

    I’m guessing a Cobb extension would look something like 5/25 guaranteed with 2 options somewhere in the $12.5 million range. When you see pitchers Travis Wood, Mike Minor and Hellickson getting 3.6-3.9 million in arb 1 and Kris Medlen and Mike Leake getting 5.8-5.9 million in arb 2, this could be an extremely team friendly deal if Cobb continues to pitch like he has.

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