JUPITER, Fla.—It’s the middle of January and the back practice fields at Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium are getting some early work. A special hitters camp is taking place, intended for young Marlins prospects...with a few exceptions.
The combination of his age (28) and height (6-6) make Garrett Cooper impossible to miss.
The Marlins acquired Cooper from the Yankees in November 2017 along with left-hander Caleb Smith in exchange for pitching prospect Michael King and international bonus pool money. He was handpicked by vice president of player development and scouting Gary Denbo, who had seen him up close the previous year when he was in the midst of his best pro season. Now with a rebuilding franchise, the late-bloomer was penciled in for a substantial major league role.
He couldn’t take advantage of the opportunity. Cooper slashed .212/.316/.242 in 14 Marlins games (10 starts) during a forgettable campaign derailed by injuries. A Kyle Hendricks hit by pitch caught him awkwardly on the right wrist, ultimately requiring surgery to get him back to full strength for 2019.
Today I underwent a procedure to repair the ECU tendon in my wrist. Thank you for all the love and support I have received over the last few days. The worst part is not being on the field with all the fellas and competing. But with that said I can’t wait for Spring Training 2019.— Garrett Cooper (@CoopaLoop1) August 31, 2018
Here we are going into his second Spring Training with Miami and Cooper tells Fish Stripes that he is seeking redemption:
“I’m ready to help the team win anywhere I can. Whether it’s first base, or outfield. I’m just ready to help the team win. Coming into spring this year with no limitations and being ready to roll is just all I can ask for.”
That’s music to the ears of Marlins coaches and fans alike. His willingness to provide versatility is key considering the expected breakdown of 13 pitchers and only 12 position players on the active roster.
The Auburn University alum says he is focused on securing an Opening Day spot again.
Easier said than done. When Cooper was sidelined last September, Peter O’Brien emerged as a promising right-handed slugger. He posted a team-best .868 OPS while starting regularly at first base. The Marlins were not shy about putting the Hialeah native in the middle of their “Our Colores” rebranding campaign, further suggesting that they anticipate O’Brien being a key contributor to the 2019 team.
Peter O’Brien on the 2019 Marlins: “Why not us? I’m going into the spring and the season with that mentality, and just know that we’re gonna put forth everything that we have. Hopefully, you [fans] do the same for us.” pic.twitter.com/URMxTEEgzZ— Fish Stripes (@fishstripes) February 11, 2019
There are also a couple new veterans in the clubhouse. Neil Walker and Curtis Granderson both agreed to one-year deals with the Marlins, expected to receive the majority of their playing time at first base and the corner outfield spots, respectively.
Cooper has managed to keep a great outlook, confident that his abilities can earn him major league playing time regardless.
“Every team has their competitions. Everyone wants that starting spot. I want to contribute anywhere they want me. Having a window to compete for a starting job is huge. I believe this team has the chance to surprise people this season. 2019 is where I hope to showcase myself as an everyday MLB player.”
Way below the radar at this time two years ago, Cooper’s monstrous production in 2017 at Triple-A Colorado Springs (Brewers affiliate) changed all that. He was a .366/.428/.652 hitter through 75 games with 17 home runs, shattering his previous career high of nine.
“I found a swing that generated more gap-to-gap power potential,” Cooper says. “I started to incorporate more of a launch angle to really drive through the ball.”
He was poised to bring that impact bat to his new surroundings. Cooper had a .821 OPS in 24 games last spring, including two homers during the final week of Grapefruit League. The main challenge going forward is recapturing the right timing at the plate against real pitching, he says.
Due to his inactivity since then, the 28-year-old still clings to his prospect eligibility. While he wasn’t represented on the December edition of our Fish Stripes Top 25, national outlets FanGraphs and Prospects Live each ranked Cooper among the best talent in the Marlins organization. Evaluators believe in his plus-plus raw power with a quality hit tool...assuming that the injuries are fully behind him.
“Getting injured is never in anyone’s plans, but hopefully this season I’ll show what the front office and coaches, and myself what I believe I can be. I know I have it in me—it’s just about allowing my body to be healthy to do it.”
Marlins full-squad workouts get underway on Monday, providing Cooper with a five-week window to demonstrate that he belongs at the highest level. With two minor league options remaining, there’s also the possibility that he goes down to Triple-A New Orleans initially, getting his reps in a low-stakes environment.
CEO Derek Jeter and the rest of the Marlins front office continue to preach patience while admitting they’re anxious to see better results from a team that piled up 98 losses in 2018. Cooper could be part of the solution—their 3.66 runs per game average last season was third-worst in franchise history.
However, the latest forecast from PECOTA only pegs them for a slight improvement (68-94, 3.80 R/G) on their way to another last-place finish.
“All the scouts and writers believe they know what will happen,” Cooper says, “but all I’m saying is to give this team a chance and we will shock some people. It’s time for people to buy into Miami.”
I wanna thank Garrett for taking the time to do this interview with me. Make sure you give him a follow on Twitter (@CoopaLoop1) and Instagram (@coopaloop28). Look for him in right field on Opening Day if all goes according to plan.