Of the 159 young men who have been selected before the second round in the past three seasons, only one has been a first baseman. That unusual statistic makes the selection of Cooper very important to the Blue Jays.
Cooper, a 25-year-old left-handed hitter and fielder played collegiate ball at Cal State-Fullerton before transferring to the University of California-Berkeley to finish his college career.
While at Cal State, Cooper was a member of the 2006 NCAA College World Series team that finished, along with North Carolina and Rice, behind winner Oregon State. Cooper raised some eyebrows when he had seven consecutive hits during the series.
His experience at Cal was also memorable. He became the first player in Cal history to be named to three separate All-America teams in a single season.
Cooper's advanced hitting mechanics -- including his ability to read and recognize pitches, his patience, good eye-hand coordination and a short, measured swing were seen as valuable assets prior to his selection in the Draft. He was viewed as a solid contact hitter with the ability to hit for average and with power. It would be those two tools that carried him to the Draft.
Using strong hands, strong wrists and strong forearms, Cooper generates strength from his upper body. He has the ability to use the entire field with good selectivity, swinging at pitches he feels he can drive. He is a very polished hitter.
At 6 feet and 200 pounds, Cooper is the smallest and lightest of the first-round first basemen in 2008. By contrast, Hosmer and Smoak are both 6-feet-4 and 230 pounds.
This past offseason, Cooper made improving his overall strength a primary conditioning goal. He hopes added muscle will make the difference between hitting balls over the fence as opposed to hitting them in the gaps.
Cooper has had to work hard to be an adequate defensive first baseman. He doesn't have much range, his feet aren't that quick and he isn't extremely agile. In short, he can make the average play but he might not save many errant throws or make diving, spectacular plays around the bag. It will be his bat that must sustain him at the Major League level.
When I saw Cooper play first base in the 2009 Arizona Fall League, I was much more impressed with his maturity and his approach at the plate than with his defense or base running. While it would be unfair to classify him as a "base clogger," speed is not an asset. I do think he has the ability to go from first to third or second to home on plays requiring that execution. I don't think he'll be able to steal many bases.
His drives to the gap will be deep enough to allow him to hit doubles. Overall, his lack of foot speed should not be a liability. His good baserunning instincts will help.
In his Arizona Fall League appearance, Cooper hit only .231 with one home run and five RBIs. It wasn't an eye-opening performance at all. But I did see promise and upside due to the strength of the various hitting components of his game. He knew the strike zone and he made pitchers work deep into counts. I felt the power would arrive. It is a fact that latent power is not uncommon with many players built and developed like Cooper. Teams realize that patience is required when evaluating a player with Cooper's early developmental skills.
Cooper earned a promotion to Toronto based upon his very solid performance this season at Triple-A Las Vegas. Prior to being recalled to fill a roster vacancy created by the injury to Ben Francisco, Cooper was showing the above-average hitting mechanics that result in good offensive production. He was hitting .298 with six home runs and 34 RBIs for the Pacific Coast League club. Most of his playing time came at first base, but he was also used as a designated hitter, a role he may play at some point for Toronto as well. He had struck out only 19 times in 185 plate-appearances, an outstanding indication of his solid contact hitting and good plate discipline. He had accepted 22 walks for Las Vegas, a statistic that helped reflect his 23 runs scored.
History has shown that it takes time, effort and repetition against increasingly better quality pitching to realize potential. Cooper appears to be maturing as a hitter. His increased strength may be the final addition to his overall physical maturation.
Cooper spent a small amount of time last season on the Blue Jays' Major League roster. It is quite possible Cooper may return to Triple-A Las Vegas once Francisco comes back. If that is the case, he will once again have enriched his experience by facing quality pitching and spending more time in a big league clubhouse.