When the Milwaukee Brewers traded first baseman Adam Lind to Seattle earlier this offseason, they did so without a clear-cut successor to Lind in place.
While he may not be ready to assume the role quite yet in 2016, one player who could eventually man the position in Milwaukee is 25-year-old first baseman Garrett Cooper.
Drafted by Milwaukee in the sixth round of the 2013 draft, Cooper played collegiately at Auburn University, where he hit .354, reaching base safely in 54 of the 56 games he played in as a Senior, en route to being named to the All-SEC second team.
While many might think of football when they think of he SEC, the conference is no slouch when it comes to baseball either. Cooper’s experience there no doubt contributed to his quick start in pro ball as he belted four home runs in his first 16 games with Helena, quickly earning a promotion to Class-A Wisconsin after signing with the Brewers following the draft.
“Playing in the SEC every weekend, most Friday night guys are top three round draft picks” said Cooper during a 2015 pregame interview on the Brevard County Manatees pregame show. “They’re there for a reason. You’re dealing with the David Prices, the Sonny Grays, all those guys, the Kevin Gausmans that come in Friday nights in the SEC. I think it helped me prepare.”
“(You) see a lot more pitchers with better fastballs in that league with offspeed they can throw at any count” Cooper continued. “Every step up the pitching gets a little better. It gave me a nice little stepping stone to here.”
Cooper finished out the 2013 season with Wisconsin, hitting .287 over the season’s final 32 games, and earned a bump to High-A Brevard County to begin the 2014 season. He battled injuries however and lost playing time, making rehab stops with Maryvale and Wisconsin before returning to Brevard in July, but was limited to just 67 games over the course of the season.
A short-lived experiment at third base also hindered Cooper’s development in 2014 and he returned to Brevard to open the 2015 campaign. There he thrived as the Manatees everyday starting first baseman, hitting .294 with 32 doubles and eight home runs in 119 contests.
While part of his success can be attributed to the good health he was able to maintain for a full season in 2015, his familiarity with the league and ability to adjust in his second season in the Florida State League should not be overlooked either.
“It’s more of a pitcher oriented league” said Cooper when asked about the differences he noticed in the Florida State League, “where the wind mostly blows in in most of the parks. A lot of balls you drive in the air are sometimes knocked down by wind. It’s a tougher league to hit in. It’s another step up from Low-A.”
Cooper impressed enough at Brevard to earn the call to Double-A Biloxi toward the tail end of 2015, where upon joining the Shuckers in the midst of their playoff run, he continued to rake at the plate, collecting 16 hits in 29 at bats, for a .552 batting average. Perhaps more impressively, Cooper managed to work seven walks in 36 plate appearances while striking out just twice.
The youngest of six children, Cooper attributes his success in 2015 to staying relaxed, not trying to do too much and remembering to continue to stay focused and do what he has always done to get him to this point in his career.
“Sticking with the same approach you have every at bat” said Cooper. “It’s baseball. you don’t want to go out there and press too hard. Let the game come to you. See a lot of pitches and hopefully you get a pitch to drive in every at bat. Doing what we can control and not trying to do too much and just being on time.”
” It’s the same thing you try to do every day” Cooper continued. “Staying with the same approach. Just because you went 0-for doesn’t mean you go and change everything.”
That approach should serve Cooper well as he continues to march his way towards Milwaukee in 2016. He’s likely to return to Biloxi for a more extended look in the Southern League as the Shuckers everyday first baseman, but he’s shown the ability to hit for average at each level and after collecting 45 extra base hits last season, there’s still hope that the 6’6” Cooper could enjoy an uptick in power numbers as well as he continues to develop through the Brewers farm system.
To most prospect followers, first base would not be considered one of the strengths of the Brewers organization, but Cooper provides some hope as a Lyle Overbay type who can put the bat on the ball on a consistent basis and drive the ball to the gaps.
With a .292 career minor league average through his first three professional seasons, Cooper has put his name on the Brewers radar and should have a clear path to Milwaukee if he is able to follow up his 2015 performance with similar results in 2016.
The jump from Single-A to Double-A is one of the most difficult, but if Cooper is able to handle it with the ability he showed in a small September sample last season, he’ll vault to the top of the Brewers first base depth chart among their minor league prospects.