ST. PETERSBURG — Absolutely, Alex Cobb was saying over the phone, it's going to be weird pitching Tuesday against the Rays.
The organization that he owes so much for rearing him since high school, standing by him through assorted injuries, enabling his development into a front-line big-league starter and clubhouse leader, positioning him to hit the free-agent jackpot of a $57 million, four-year deal with the Orioles.
"It will be a little odd seeing the jersey,'' Cobb said. "Been part of the family for so long.''
But stranger, he said, is thinking about the names that will be in the Rays' lineup.
More precisely, those that won't.
No Evan Longoria, Steven Souza Jr., Corey Dickerson, Logan Morrison. All key players when Cobb last wore a Rays uniform in October. And all gone — along with a half-dozen others, including fellow starter Jake Odorizzi — as part of a massive off-season makeover.
"It's always sad to see whenever an organization breaks down the core of a team, especially one a fan base got to enjoy and to watch for a long time,'' Cobb said. "You never want to see it. They found it was the right time to experiment with some things (such as the short-staffed rotation, reconfigured bullpen, defensive alignments). And we know the financial constraints they're up against.
"But it's tough to see. It took a long time to build it up. And to see it get broken down pretty much overnight, it's strange to see.''
Some will read Cobb's comments and be dismissive, saying if he cared that much he should have stayed with the Rays instead of chasing a fortune elsewhere. No, it doesn't work like that. Any of us would probably do the same.
Or that he should be more concerned with his own problems — lasting only seven innings in his first two starts since a late-spring signing, allowing 20 hits in posting a 15.43 ERA. Wrong again. Give him credit for answering honestly, as usual.
Cobb isn't the only former Ray looking back, wondering about what's going on. And well beyond the pretty-much universal question about the three-man rotation plan wisely abandoned over the weekend, one in which the Rays swept the Twins to improve to 8-13, a solid run since that 1-8 start.
The always candid Morrison, who the Rays let walk into what turned out to be a much less lucrative free agent market than expected, said the constant roster churn raises legitimate questions beyond tanking this year but about the front office's overall intentions.
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"I see the part of it where players look at it as like, 'All right, do well so I can get traded, so I can get out of here.' It's not like they want to win here, unfortunately. That's the environment it's created. … I don't think it's a secret,' '' said Morrison, who signed a one year deal with Minnesota for $6.5 million, that could grow into $16.5 million over two.
"The way you have to operate, I guess, here is not a way that's going to be successful long term. It's just not going to happen. You're just not going to win trades over and over and over and over and over again. And I think players are starting to realize we're not going to be taking those (longer-term, arbitration-avoiding, free-agency delaying) deals you want to offer us anymore. So they know. The writing's on the wall. Now it's like you have six years of control, but by the time they get to their fifth year, they're too expensive.''
Morrison mentioned Dickerson, who the Rays unloaded in February for little savings or return, essentially buying Class A infield prospect Tristan Gray for $3.5 million. Another example in the same Twins clubhouse is Odorizzi, who also was dealt this spring for seemingly under-market return, Double-A infielder Jermaine Palacios.
Odorizzi said players get a sense they are likely to be traded by the Rays as they reach a certain level of compensation compared to production level: "We all know how it goes.''
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Certainly veteran starting pitchers, as the Rays have commoditized that market, dealing, among others, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, James Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Drew Smyly and now Odorizzi. (Had Cobb pitched better early last season and the Rays not been in the wild-card race, he would have been traded as well; instead the Rays get the No. 31 pick in the June draft as compensation.)
"Did I think everything that happened this off-season was going to happen? Probably not,'' Odorizzi said. "There's been a lot of good friends gone out of here. … It's a whole new team. … It is what it is.''
"It's different," Moore said.
Which Cobb will clearly recognize from 60 feet, 6 inches away come Tuesday.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays