Hitting Looks Like Right Decision For Kaleb Cowart
The Angels have had a dearth of first-round picks in recent years, going without one in 2005, '07 and '08 because of free agent signings.
They tried to make up for it in 2009 and '10, with five first-round picks in those two years, and early returns have been promising. After watching 2009 first-rounder Mike Trout rocket to the majors, the Angels' first pick of 2010, switch-hitting third baseman Kaleb Cowart, is trying to set himself on a similarly meteoric path.
After signing late last summer, Cowart had a six-game cameo in the Rookie-level Arizona League that prompted a promotion to the more advanced Rookie-level affiliate in the Pioneer League, Orem, with one game left in the regular season. Cowart immediately impressed Owlz manager Tom Kotchman, as he went 2-for-5 with an opposite-field home run.
"When he came up it was for him to get used to the crowds, but we saw enough in one game to put the kid in the playoffs," Kotchman recalls. "It didn't faze him one bit."
Cowart hit .300 in the three-game postseason set against Ogden, though the Owlz lost the series. The experience, however, provided more than just an exhibition of Cowart's hitting prowess.
"I knew what to expect coming into this year," he said. "Spring training went well, (extended spring training) went really well and now it's been going pretty good here in Orem so far."
Good is an understatement.
Cowart has been one of the most productive hitters in the Pioneer League, despite being one of its youngest everyday players and facing pitchers who are on average two years older than him. He led the league in batting (.386), and his .435 on-base percentage ranked second in the league, impressive for any young player but even more so for the switch-hitting Cowart, who is refining and working on two swings.
"I've really concentrated on my lefthanded swing, trying to make it shorter and quicker and more consistent," he said. "Just being able to repeat it day in and day out."
The hard work that Cowart has put in over the past months has certainly paid off, as he was batting .408 against righthanders. This isn't to say that his swing against lefties has suffered, however. He was batting .320 from the right side, showing all of the skills that made him a first-round pick.
"I'm seeing the ball well right now," he said. "I'm just trying to keep things simple at the plate and help my team win any way I can."
"He stays in the middle of the yard pretty well," Kotchman said. "I think like all young players that have a chance to hit with power, you have to learn how to hit first and the power will come. Obviously he has that potential—he's got the long arms and the strength. He'll learn to turn on balls later."
After the quick start to Cowart's career, it's strange to think that a year ago, many in baseball were divided on where his professional prospects lay.
Draft Day Decision
Going into 2010's draft, many teams coveted Cowart as a righthanded pitcher and with good reason; his senior year at Cook High in Adel, Ga., saw him go 10-1, 1.05 with 116 strikeouts in 73 innings. Cowart's heart, however, wasn't on the mound.
"I'm the type of guy that wants to play as much as I can," he said. "I just love going out there and hearing my name called when I'm in the box. I'd much rather play every day instead of every other day or every five days."
Cowart made this clear to teams going into the 2010 draft, even though many scouts considered him a better prospect as a pitcher. He had a power arsenal from the mound, with a 91-93 mph fastball with good sink and a hard slider. Some teams considered him a second- or third-rounder as a hitter.
But the Angels were happy to oblige Cowart's wish to be a hitter, and used their first pick, 18th overall, to grab him. They used all three of their first-round picks on Georgia prep players, going with righthander Cam Bedrosian 29th and outfielder Chevez Clarke 30th.
For Cowart, choosing hitting over pitching was a relatively easy decision. The harder question for him was whether to turn pro at all. He had a strong commitment to Florida State, after growing up close to the Tallahassee campus. A $2.3 million bonus helped him make his decision.
"It was really tough for me and my family, but I think I made the right choice in the end. I feel like I made the best decision possible," he said.
Cowart's bat has impressed virtually all who have seen it this season, but he had also racked up the second-most errors (eight) of any third baseman in the Pioneer League. Kotchman has seen every one of them and isn't buying into any questions about Cowart's defense.
"I'm not concerned," Kotchman said. "If you played on some of the fields we've played on, you'd understand. He can get better, but he's got all the tools to not only play third base, but to play other positions. Kaleb has got the body and the arm strength."
The importance of glovework isn't lost on Cowart.
"You have good defense and you're going to win games," he said. "It's something I take a lot of pride in."
Whether at the plate or in the field, Cowart has as much potential as anyone in the minors, but a level-headed, mature approach to the game has been just as important to his success as raw talent.
"If you saw him interact with his teammates you'd think he was a veteran guy," Kotchman said. "Sometimes after a win guys might be laughing and getting on, but he's more serious. I think he understands what the big picture is in the end. He's just mature for his age and mature baseball wise, which will only help him along in his career. Kaleb's got the makeup to get through all the tough stuff in baseball and that whatever he's supposed to be, he's going to be it."