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Alex Cobb bracing himself for possible farewell season with Rays

Cruz Killingsworth, 5, right along with his brother Finn, 3, hang on a fence along the third base line waiting for Tampa Bay Rays players just prior to a spring training game between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Tampa Bay Rays Saturday, March 18, 2017 in Dunedin.
Published Mar. 19, 2017

PORT CHARLOTTE — Is there anything wrong with thinking about saying goodbye when you're not 100 percent sure you're leaving?

Alex Cobb is no dumb blond. He's savvy enough to know the history — that as a frontline starting pitcher headed to free agency, he most likely will be traded by the Rays during the summer.

"It's just the way things unfold here," he said. "If you were a betting man, that probably would be the way to go."

Cobb, 29, would like to think there are other options.

The one he fancies is that he is pitching so well, and the Rays are winning so much, that they have no choice but to keep him for a march deep into the postseason, and then he heads out.

Or the Rays could preempt free agency and re-sign him during the season at market price, extending what has been a 12-year stay in the organization. Or his first full season back from Tommy John surgery could go bad, and due to injury or ineffectiveness, he could find himself without a better offer and sign on for another year.

But for now, it's hard for Cobb to not think this is the beginning of a long goodbye.

And it starts in Port Charlotte, his spring, and summer rehab, home since the team's 2009 move south.

"It's a difficult thought, and it's one that I've had a lot this spring," Cobb said. "I've found myself driving around, whether it's to Wal-Mart or to Publix, or going by the Chili's where we'd hang out because it was near the (minor-leaguers') hotel, and I'm thinking about the first year I was here in Port Charlotte and all the different things that have happened here. Life-changing stuff.

"Then you go into the clubhouse and you see all the faces, people that I've seen since I was 18, that really have been your family since then. It's part of spring training — you give that guy a hug, you ask how their family is doing, they ask about yours, you reminisce about the times you had in the past. …

"You think about it, and it's sad. It's sad that it's a possibility I could no longer be around here."

Sure, you can say if Cobb felt that badly about leaving, he shouldn't. That — especially after making $4 million each of the past two seasons (for 22 innings and one win in the majors), and another $4.2 million this year — he should just take whatever the Rays offer and stay.

But that's not how this works.

A player toils for the chance to reach free agency after six years in the majors, and he has the right to get paid. (Also, consider that Cobb already missed on cashing in once already as he was negotiating a long-term deal worth nearly $50 million when he hurt his elbow two springs ago. And, that former teammate Jeremy Hellickson is making $17.2 million — SEVENTEEN-POINT-TWO-MILLION — this season from the Phillies.)

Nor should you pin this on the Rays, as they have the right to maximize their assets, and with all the young — and inexpensive — pitching they have in the system to replace Cobb (such as Jose De Leon), getting something for him in July is only logical.

There are already whispers of potential interest elsewhere, including two teams with intimate connections — the Cubs, managed by ex-Ray Joe Maddon; and the Dodgers, presidented by ex-Ray Andrew Friedman.

That is no surprise, because as good as a healthy Cobb can be on the mound — "top 10 in all of baseball," teammate Chris Archer opines — he may have even more value for his leadership and bulldog attitude.

"We know what he brings to our pitching staff and our clubhouse," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "We all understand how important Alex is to us."

First, Cobb has to show that he is indeed back to being Alex Cobb. That it's more than just braggadocio and wishful thinking for him to say there is "zero doubt" he can return to 2013-14 form, when, despite a concussion (from being hit by a line drive) and an oblique strain, he was 21-12, 2.82 in 49 starts.

"It's the smaller pixels I'm looking for," Cobb said. "The larger picture of it is there."

Then there will be the question of where the path leads. If elsewhere, the memories will be well-cataloged:

The thrill of working out with the big-league Devil Rays at the Trop after being a fourth-round pick in 2006. The smell of the locker room the day he arrived in Princeton, W.Va., as a pro, and the nerves — "my heart was beating out of my chest, everything was going a million miles an hour" — of his first game. The unbridled joy of his promotion to the majors, and the best-day-ever feel of his on May 1, 2011, big-league debut, with his dad and brother in the stands. The fear of a career- or even life-threatening injury when struck in the head by an Eric Hosmer line drive in June 2013, then the satisfaction of returning for his thus far career-highlight moment, starting and winning the AL wild-card game. And the frustration of the pain he felt during the 2015 St. Patrick's Day start in Clearwater leading to Tommy John surgery, and this two-year odyssey back.

Cobb has been through so much in his life, most jarringly the sudden death of his mother during his senior year in high school, and he has seen so many good friends traded (James Shields, David Price, Hellickson, Matt Moore, etc.), that he is certain he won't be fazed no matter what happens or where he ends up.

But that doesn't mean he won't be thinking about saying goodbye.

"There will definitely be moments throughout the season when it will hit me," he said. "It won't be every day where I wake up and say, 'Hey, this could be my last day here.' … But it will be like mindless driving down the highway thinking about it. And it'll be a little sad."

Marc Topkin can be reached at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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