Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays' Alex Cobb to return to rotation Friday

BOSTON — The first official day of what Alex Cobb is calling his "big-league reincarnation" didn't go all smoothly.

Cobb couldn't have been more excited to board Monday's 2:30 p.m. early bus with his teammates and to walk into the Fenway Park clubhouse, however cramped, for the first time in nearly two years.

One problem: He totally forgot his equipment was in the bag he'd lugged from Durham, where he made his final rehab start Saturday. And that was sitting in his hotel room, rather than unpacked and piled in his locker like the players who have been with the team.

"My first blunder," Cobb said.

Cobb borrowed workout clothes, and the bag was sent over on the later bus. And things kept getting better from there, starting with official word he would make his long-awaited and hard-earned return from May 2015 Tommy John elbow surgery Friday at the Trop, as the Rays shift to a six-man rotation for the final month.

"It's real," Cobb said.

Manager Kevin Cash said the decision to slot Cobb in on Friday and go with a straight six-man rotation, giving each five starts over the final 30 games and keeping them on a routine, although not a standard once-every-five-days, was "actually a pretty simple" one.

"We've got, we feel, six guys that all have a reason to be starters," Cash said. "That's what made the most sense for us. We didn't feel it was right to jerk anybody around and piggyback (by having two split a game)."

Here are some takeaways from their decision, made with an eye toward 2017:

Cobb is a priority: Cobb was a sharp enough pitcher to be tabbed the 2015 opening day starter until he got hurt in spring training, and a strong enough leader that Cash has openly acknowledged how much they missed him.

So the priority now is to get him as much work to get past as many of the potential issues and struggles (see Matt Moore, July 2015) so he can have a regular, stress-free offseason and head to Port Charlotte next spring of sound arm and mind, ready to reclaim his place as an elite pitcher.

"It's so important now to get him back here," Cash said. "He's worked really hard through the injury to get back. Let him get his innings in, as many as possible here in September, let him have some success and go into the offseason feeling normal."

Cobb, grinning all day over "feeling like a big-leaguer again," realizes there is more work to do: "Just because the rehab portion is over my journey getting back to where I was when I originally got hurt isn't finished — I still have some ways to go."

No shutdowns: Other options would have been to drop prized rookie Blake Snell from the rotation, or move Matt Andriese, who got roughed up in Monday's 9-4 loss to the Red Sox, back to the bullpen, but the Rays want to see them pitch. Using the six-man setup actually limits everyone's workload to a degree.

But the Rays want Snell to experience pitching through September for the first time and are comfortable with his workload — 1311/3 innings thus far between minors and majors. That gives him about 30 to play with and stay at around their rough limit of a 20 percent increase from last season, when he worked 134 in the minors.

Similarly, they want to see more out of Andriese, who had been bounced between starting (5-5, 4.71 in 14 games) and relieving (1-1, 2.38 in 10).

Related, Drew Smyly on Wednesday will surpass his career high of 153 innings. Conversely, Chris Archer will lose out on a start, which could hurt his bid to get the 31 innings to reach his goal of 200, though could also keep him from 20 losses.

PROMISING FUTURE: The front office could — and, realistically, probably will — change this by dealing a starter or two, but the group the Rays have now certainly portends promise for 2017.

They have Cobb, Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Snell, Smyly and Andriese, plus they'll get a look in relief at Chase Whitley, the former Yankee who also just completed his Tommy John rehab, and they still have Erasmo Ramirez, assuming they'll pay his $4 million or so arbitration-driven salary. Plus there will be the usual intriguing prospects, led by Jacob Faria and Jaime Schultz.

"We're very excited," Cash said. "It's a great luxury to have. Ultimately they have to go out and pitch well, but you can never have enough starting pitching, and we feel very strong in that category."

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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