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With upcoming free agent class thinning, Garrett Cooper could cash in

Cooper’s all-important walk year is off to a great start.

Garrett Cooper #26 of the Miami Marlins hits an RBI single in the fourth inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks at loanDepot park on April 14, 2023 in Miami, Florida. Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

Miami Marlins second baseman Luis Arraez has immediately won over his new fanbase, and understandably so. He’s been racking up hits at an unprecedented pace and became the first Marlin to ever hit for the cycle. Arraez is unlike any other player that the franchise has had in recent years.

Arraez’s feats have overshadowed Garrett Cooper’s own season-opening hot streak. Cooper enters Saturday with a .370/.408/.630 slash line and team-leading 9 RBI.

Perhaps it would be more notable if it was actually unexpected, but the longtime Marlin has enjoyed similar surges before. In particular, Coop’s June 2022 performance propelled him to his first career National League All-Star selection.

For all of their obvious differences, Arraez and Cooper provide comparable value at the plate. Over the last two-plus seasons (2021-2023), they are tied with a 125 weighted runs created-plus, per FanGraphs (100 represents the MLB average).

The Marlins prioritized Arraez as a trade candidate last offseason because of his three remaining years of club control. They have time to negotiate a contract extension that would keep him in Miami through his prime. On the other hand, the 32-year-old Cooper is a pending free agent. He may be hitting the market under ideal conditions.

Chicago Cubs outfielder Ian Happ (117 wRC+ since 2021) became the latest projected member of the 2023-24 MLB free agent class to agree to a contract extension. Stars Rafael Devers (138 wRC+) and Manny Machado (135 wRC+) did the same before Opening Day.

If you’re shopping for offense next winter, your fantasy is Shohei Ohtani. But after him, the drop-off is steep.

Teoscar Hernández (129 wRC+ since 2021) has seen his production steadily decline and his plate discipline is highly questionable (16 K vs. 1 BB so far as a Seattle Mariner). Jesse Winker (126 wRC+) is being strictly platooned in Milwaukee. Right below them—by this admittedly arbitrary criteria—is Garrett Cooper!

Garrett Cooper’s 2023 Statcast percentile rankings
Garrett Cooper’s 2023 Statcast percentile rankings
Baseball Savant

Cooper’s objective is to distinguish himself from all of the other potentially available first basemen/designated hitters. Brandon Belt, Michael Brantley and J.D. Martinez will be in the 2023-24 class, though they’re each multiple years older than Cooper. Justin Turner can opt out of his contract...if he shows he still has something left in the tank entering what would be his age-39 campaign. Rhys Hoskins would’ve been widely coveted—unfortunately, he suffered a season-ending torn ACL in Spring Training. Off to a slow start with the Cleveland Guardians, Josh Bell is no sure thing to test the market again (he’d need to turn down a $16.5 million player option).

The main components missing from Cooper’s résumé to this point have been availability and over-the-fence power (relative to his position). So far, so good from that standpoint in 2023. He should be rooting for continued success for teammate Yuli Gurriel, who isn’t a real “threat” to Cooper’s playing time, but occasionally frees him up to focus on DH duty.

At the very least, Cooper ($4.2 million salary in 2023) can count on getting a pay raise next season. It’s not too soon for the Marlins to think about whether they have a capable successor in their organization, because historically, this franchise comes out on the losing end of most bidding wars. As much as Cooper may appreciate the Marlins for giving him the opportunity to establish himself as a major leaguer, this is likely the only opportunity he’ll get to secure a lucrative, multi-year deal. Miami’s “hometown discount” offer won’t be an effective negotiating move with the Southern California native.

Since acquiring Cooper a half-decade ago, the Marlins offense has perennially been worse than the MLB average. His tenure with the club may end in 2023, but it will be remembered fondly if he’s one of the key bats powering them to respectable run production.