Image credit: Garrett Cooper (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
SAN DIEGO — Two years ago, Garrett Cooper stepped back and took an honest appraisal of his situation.
He was a 26-year-old career minor leaguer. He was performing well in Triple-A but had no indication he was in the mix for a callup. Multiple teams from Nippon Pro Baseball were calling his agent, trying to gauge Cooper’s interest in moving to Japan to continue his career.
After a period of reflection that summer of 2017, Cooper gave himself an ultimatum: If he wasn’t called up to the majors by the end of the season, he would go play in Japan.
“That year in Triple-A I felt like there was not much more I could have done that warranted a shot in the big leagues,” Cooper said. “The guaranteed money that you get over there, I think if I didn’t get the opportunity that year, I would’ve gone.”
Luckily for the Marlins, that didn’t happen.
Cooper, 28, has established himself as a key cog for the rebuilding Marlins in a breakout season this year. He has hit .309 with 11 home runs and 37 RBIs while moving into the middle of Miami’s order, and he has been particularly hot recently.
Since June 1, Cooper has hit .342 with a .413 on-base percentage and .564 slugging percentage.
With the Marlins seeking young cornerstones to serve as anchors of their rebuild, Cooper has made the case he’s a keeper.
“There’s nothing really not to like,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. “His at-bats are pretty much quality. He uses the whole field. He’s got some power. Been productive. Hits good pitching. I mean, there’s a lot to like.”
The Brewers drafted Cooper in the sixth round in 2013 as a senior sign out of Auburn. A 6-foot-6, 230-pound righthanded-hitting first baseman, Cooper projected to hit for power but struggled to actually do it. He hit single-digit home runs in 2014, 2015 and 2016 while being older than the average age at each level. As such, he never ranked as one of the Brewers’ top prospects.
When Cooper finally reached double-digit home runs for the first time in 2017 it came at Triple-A Colorado Springs, a place where the accomplishment could easily be dismissed as a product of the high altitude.
But beneath the numbers, there had been a fundamental change.
“I think I finally grew into my body as I got older,” said Cooper, whose draft scouting report noted he had yet to grow into his long frame even as a college senior. “I don’t think I was physically ready to be the kind of hitter I always wanted to be. I’ve always felt like I’ve been a good hitter. It was just finally tapping into using my frame as a hitter.”
In 2017, Cooper put together a particularly scorching stretch from mid-June into early July when he hit .411 with 13 doubles, six home runs and 28 RBIs in 21 games, but he still wasn’t on the docket for a callup. That’s when the thoughts of going to Japan began to pick up steam.
Unbeknownst to Cooper, the Yankees saw the change and believed in it. On July 9, in need of a first baseman, they acquired Cooper for reliever Tyler Webb. Five days later, the Yankees put Cooper in the starting lineup against the Red Sox for his major league debut.
“When I got up to the big leagues and made my debut with the Yankees, it was a shock to me,” Cooper said. “Being with New York, being a part of that organization, that was a big day for me. I think about it all the time, how if that hadn’t happened, I probably would be in Japan right now.”
The Marlins acquired Cooper from the Yankees after the season in a trade that also brought them lefthander Caleb Smith. The fact many Yankees front office members moved to the Marlins that offseason, including farm director Gary Denbo, played a role in Cooper’s acquisition, but there was more to it.
“Quite honestly, the analytics guys basically kind of knew what he was and had an understanding of what this guy could be because of the numbers he put up,” Mattingly said. “Just all the different advanced analytics that kind of measure guys and show that they could have success at the big league level. How hard he’s hit the ball, the angles it’s coming off, the consistency of contact, strikeout rates, walk rate. All the kind of stuff that tells you that guy has been able to that all the way through the minors, there was a lot of things to like.”
The only downside for Cooper has been injuries. His debut with the Yankees in 2017 was cut short after 13 games by hamstring tendinitis. In 2018, he was limited to 14 games by a pair of wrist injuries. This year, he’s missed a month with a calf strain and another 10 days after being hit by a pitch on the hand.
But when healthy, Cooper been an offensive difference-maker in the major leagues.
For a senior sign who never ranked as a top prospect and was months away from going to Japan, it’s a remarkable place to be.
“Thinking about where I would’ve been if I decided to go over there . . . I think about that a lot,” he said. “Nonetheless, the path I took, I wouldn’t change it for the world.”