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An ode to Garrett Cooper and his endless journey to get regular playing time

After almost a decade as a pro, the 30-year-old is still trying to convince Don Mattingly and the Marlins to trust him in the everyday lineup.

Miami Marlins v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Garrett Cooper has been a first-line warrior for the Marlins. Now in his fourth season with the Fish, Cooper is stepping up as one of the most dangerous hitters on the team, producing runs despite not playing every day. You could make the case that his role should be expanded even more to keep the team relevant in 2021.

Cooper defied the odds just to arrive at this point. He began his minor league career in 2013 at an age (22) when other players are already thriving in the Bigs. Jesús Sánchez and Jazz Chisholm Jr. both debuted as 22-year-olds, for example. Juan Soto and Fernando Tatís Jr. are established megastars at that age.

Cooper was a Milwaukee Brewers farmhand from 2013 to 2017. He topped out at Triple-A, where he played in only 36 games before being traded to the New York Yankees.

Fortunately, the Yankees gave Garrett his first taste of major-league ball with 13 contests in 2017 (.326/.333/.488), though there wasn’t room for him. Just months later, in November of that year, the Bombers flipped him to the Marlins along with lefty Caleb Smith to create openings on their 40-man roster.

In the next chapter of Cooper’s journey, he was given a golden opportunity to play on a stripped-down Marlins team. Unfortunately, he got injured with a right wrist contusion within the first few days of the 2018 regular season. Soon after coming back to action, he aggravated that injury and missed the remainder of the year. By the end of his first two MLB seasons, fairly deep into his baseball life, he had appeared in only 27 contests and had an uninspiring .276/.325/.382 slash line.

Cooper’s career turned a corner in 2019. It took more perseverance—he got injured again (left calf strain) and was barely available until mid-May. But he totaled 107 games and posted a .281/.344/.446 line with 32 extra-base hits, 50 RBIs, and 107 hits in 381 at-bats.

Last year, Cooper raised the bar even higher. Outside of his COVID absence, he hit eight doubles and six home runs in just 34 games, with 20 RBIs, 20 runs scored, 11 walks, and pretty robust averages (.283/.353/.500). Plus, he finally reached arbitration eligibility, which tripled his salary for the 2021 campaign.

In a frustrating turn of events for baseball fans and especially for players like Cooper, MLB did not implement a universal designated hitter for this season. That made it more difficult for Don Mattingly to find a steady role for the 30-year-old. Coincidence or not, he struggled badly during the first quarter of the schedule.

However, Cooper’s overall numbers entering Wednesday are right in line with expectations. He’s appeared in 62 games (48 starts) for the Marlins. During that time, he has had 52 hits, nine doubles, one triple, and seven four-baggers, along with 29 runs batted in and 25 walks (.272/.365/.440). And he’s showing no signs of slowing down by reaching base safely in every start since recovering from a lumbar strain.

If we combine Cooper’s three latest seasons, even accounting for the injuries and his often-undefined role, here is where he ranks among all his teammates in that span:

  • Hits: 3rd-best
  • Doubles: 3rd-best
  • Home runs: 2nd-best
  • Runs batted in: 2nd-best
  • Runs scored: 4th-best
  • OPS: 1st (min. 250 PA)
Fish Stripes original GIF

The Marlins need Cooper’s bat in the lineup during the second half of this season. Unsurprisingly, the Marlins have had an 8-2 record so far when the slugger records two or more runs batted in (12-3 if you include the 2020 season, 22-6 if you go back to 2019 as well).

Due to the presences of Jesús Aguilar, Adam Duvall and rookie Jesús Sánchez, the Marlins have rotated Cooper around first base, right field, and their bench. Through it all, Cooper has demonstrated the professionalism and good work ethic that should merit seeing more playing time. That’s the ultimate goal in his journey: becoming a full-time ballplayer.