About a week ago, Baseball America listed their "Top 10 Prospects" list for the 2011 Tampa Bay Rays Organization. While topped by familiar faces (did anyone doubt that Jeremy Hellickson would be at the top?), there were quite a few surprises on the list. The list seemed to be extremely 2011-heavy, containing two players who haven't even made their pro-ball debuts yet (Drew Vettleson and Josh Sale) and two more who merely have a few months of rookie ball under their belts (Jake Thompson and Justin O'Conner). While those four and their ceilings excite me so much I can't fall asleep at night, frankly their placement on the list was at the expense of an inexcusable omission; as many DRaysBayers pointed out, Alex Cobb is not your typical farm corn.
Now that we've gotten past the horrendous puns, let's take a look at the scouting report of the elegant swan of a pitcher named Alexander Cobb. A little over a month ago, BA had the following to say:
Cobb’s fastball sits in the low 90s with occasional sink. His main trouble is fastball command, because he sometimes to get too cute with locating the pitch. His most reliable pitch is his above-average changeup, while he’s still refining both of his breaking balls, a high-70s curveball that’s a plus pitch at times and a low-80s slider with average tilt.
While this scouting report isn't all that glowing, it certainly helps to explain why Cobb might have gotten the shaft. That being said, a 95 mph fastball isn't necessary for success, as the Adam Wainwrights of the world have illustrated.
Even by the more standard metrics, Cobb has had a fantastic season this year as a 22 year-old in AA, putting together a shiny 2.71 ERA, good for fourth best in his league, to go along with a 7-5 win loss record. When we look at his peripherals, however, we see further reason to believe that Cobb has a promising future.
*Because minorleaguesplits is down, I couldn't find reliable data for Cobb's groundball rates. As a result, these values are the result of a linear regression on GO/AO vs. GB% for major league pitchers, a formula which I then plugged Cobb's GO/AO into. While memory says that Cobb's GB% was higher than that, these estimates are probably not too far off (the R^2 is 87.2%).
While the walks and grounders have crept in negative directions, the strikeouts have exploded despite the fact that Cobb has gone through one level each year. Cobb now does all three of the "Great Triumvirate" of being a good pitcher at above-average rates. Cobb has also succeeded in maintaining his much higher strikeout rates in a small sample in the hitter friendly Arizona Fall League, where he has struck out 22 in 20.2 innings.
Given that Cobb's success has now come in AA and that he will almost certainly be starting 2011 in AAA, Cobb is perhaps only one year away from making contributions to the big league club. Making the jump from A+ to AA is traditionally considered the most difficult step in the minor leagues and Cobb has not only made this transition but done so with flying colors. While Cobb might not be the most exciting prospect in the Rays system nor the best, he has a real argument for the 5th or 6th best prospect in the system, due mostly to the fact that he has shown a steady and constant progression, and that his results show no glaring flaws. Failing that, he's certainly a lock for the top 10, and it's a massive oversight on Baseball America's part that he wasn't included.
Pitchers in general have a high attrition rate and there's no reason to believe that Cobb would be an exception to this rule. The Rays have a farm system that reflects this, in that its philosophy is to stock up on tons of young pitching prospects and hope that they stick. That being said, this awesome combination of quality and quantity often times leads to the overlooking of bright talents. Alex Cobb is one of those bright talents, and it would be a pity if he were unappreciated because he is in the shadow of such giants as Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore.