Zack Wheeler was set to headline the Milwaukee Brewers’ return for Carlos Gomez when the trade was nixed at the last second. As we know, Wheeler is an extremely talented pitcher rehabbing from Tommy John Surgery, a description that also fits the Tampa Bay Rays’ Alex Cobb. The New York Mets were ready to deal Wheeler, but we never heard anything at all about Cobb being available for the Rays and now the trade deadline has come and gone. Is there any particular reason for that?
The comparison between Cobb and Wheeler grows stronger because just like the Mets, the Rays don’t really need Cobb for the future. They currently have Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Drew Smyly, Erasmo Ramirez, and Nate Karns all lined up as rotation options for next season, with Matt Moore, Matt Andriese, and Alex Colome serving as further depth. That is before we get to Blake Snell, the top pitching prospect that has already cracked Triple-A.
However, there are a few critical differences between Cobb and Wheeler that made a deal of Cobb so unlikely that it wasn’t even been rumored. The first is team control–both Cobb and Wheeler will return in the middle of 2016, but Cobb has only one more season after that before hitting free agency while Wheeler has three. Especially given that not all recoveries from Tommy John go smoothly initially (see Moore, Matt), it simply doesn’t make sense for a team to acquire Cobb and pay his salaries for the remainder of 2015 and 2016 (or even just 2016) in exchange for one potentially good year in 2017.
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In addition, while Wheeler will come back from the surgery and have a relatively high probability of staying healthy for a while afterwards, Cobb’s injury history is much scarier. Cobb is nearly three years older than Wheeler and has two more seasons under his belt in which he has spent big league time, but Cobb’s career-high in innings in the majors is just 166.1 compared to Wheeler’s 185.1 mark. Even counting the minors, Cobb has never topped 177.2 innings in a season, and that was way back in 2012. Even if he returns from Tommy John successfully, there is little chance that Cobb will ever become a 200-inning pitcher at this point.
That might be the start to an argument for the Rays to trade Cobb for whatever they can get, but I wouldn’t go that far. If healthy, Cobb can still be expected to produce ace-like results when he is on the mound. When he is ready to come back, he is the type of guy for whom you make room in their rotation. Especially given how low his trade value is, what do the Rays have to lose sending him out after Tommy John Surgery and maybe at the beginning of 2017 to see if he can pitch well and entice a team to give them more for him?
It’s difficult to be optimistic about Cobb’s future as a durable big league starting pitcher, but at the very least, the Rays could get more in return for Cobb after he returns to action. Maybe they can trade him, or maybe he stays healthy for all of 2017 and can be good enough to receive a qualifying offer. Another scenario is that his injury history scares off enough teams that the Rays can sign him to a relatively low-cost extension even as he hits free agency. At the end of the day, though, the Rays had more to gain keeping Cobb than trading him away for very little in the last few days.