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.