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Rays $17.4-million gamble with Alex Cobb is rooted in not trading him during season

By Marc Topkin
Alex Cobb delivers a pitch in a September game for Rays. [WILL VRAGOVIC / Tampa Bay Times]

UPDATE, 6:11: Here is Cobb's reaction to the offer being made:

"It's extremely humbling and I'm very honored to receive such an offer from the Rays. Obviously I get the business side of it and reasons behind making the offer, buy obviously there's still a lot of confidence in me that they made that offer. I look forward to talking to my agents and figuring out what will be the best route going forward."

Additionally, Cobb said initial conversations have yielded "a lot of teams" at least interested in discussing possibilities with him, and that with the Rays making the offer he is looking forward to seeing how teams go forward as they have 10 days to decide.

UPDATE, 5:50: Here is what Rays GM Erik Neander said about their decision to make the offer:

"Alex is a winning player, and with what he has demonstrated throughout his time here, in terms of on-field talent and leadership, he is every bit deserving of this offer. Alex has the next decision in this process and we're prepared for the potential outcomes that come with it."

UPDATE, 3:49: The Rays are definitely making the qualifying offer, which becomes official at 5 p.m.

DEVELOPING: Keeping RHP Alex Cobb throughout the season in their ultimately unsuccessful bid to make the playoffs is what left the Rays in position today to take another expensive gamble that could have a drastic impact on their 2018 payroll.

While some teams will make a one-year, $17.4-million qualifying offer to their free agents by today's 5 p.m. deadline angling to keep them around, the Rays are expected to do so hoping strongly Cobb declines so they can get draft pick compensation when he leaves.

That's nothing against Cobb, of course, a career-long Ray who is repeatedly praised for his strong pitching, clubhouse leadership and bulldog attitude.

Those were all part of the reasons the Rays declined to trade him by the July 31 non-waiver deadline, and again at the Aug. 31 postseason eligibility deadline (assuming there was a potential deal if he had been claimed), knowing it would not only impact their chances but also send the wrong message to the clubhouse, all of which is what put them in this position.

That and deciding they can't afford to keep Cobb now that he has reached free agency and, as one of the top starters on the market, is positioned to land a big bucks deal.

How much? Maybe along the lines of the five-year, $70-million deal Ian Kennedy got from the Royals in January 2016, or the five years and $80-million Mike Leake got from the Cardinals in Dec. 2015.

By most accounts, Cobb, who just turned 30, is one of the top five starters on the market this winter and should do well. Though there is some chatter that he may be limited to a three- or four-year contract given his injury history (coming off May 2015 Tommy John surgery) and that he has not fully re-mastered the split-changeup that was his best pitch, working mostly last season with a fastball/curveball combo as he went 12-10, 3.66 and piling up a career-high 179 1/3 innings.

Under MLB rules, Cobb and his agents will have 10 days to talk to teams and get a sense of what is likely to be out there before deciding. By rejecting the deal, he can go sign for whatever wherever (though the signing him does lose a pick), and the Rays will get a compensation pick, either at the end of the first round or the end of the second based on whether he gets more or less than $50-million.

But if Cobb decides the offers out there don't sound good enough, that teams want to see more (such as improvement with the changeup), he could opt to take the offer and return to the Rays for the 2018 season.
That $17.4-million salary would not only be the highest in franchise history, but likely would have a potentially several trickle down effect as the Rays are looking to reduce their payroll, which was $70-million at the start of last season and pushing $80-million by the end. With nearly $40-million already committed to five signed players, they would have to significantly alter their roster or find a way to increase their payroll if he returns.

The Rays were in a similar situation once previously, deciding after the 2012 season to make what was then a $13.3-million qualifying offer to CF B.J. Upton. They guessed right then, as he turned it down and signed a five-year, $75-million contract with the Braves. (With that compensation pick they drafted RHP Ryne Stanek, who made his debut in 2017 as a hard-throwing reliever.)

Former Rays RHP Jeremy Hellickson was one of two players (of 10 offered) who accepted a QO last winter, and he made $17.2-million this season pitching for the Phillies and Orioles.