David Cooper Overcomes Odds, Signs With Indians


Injury Doesn’t Deter Indians From Signing David Cooper

Baseball’s annual Winter Meetings began on Monday, and the Indians have already begun making moves.

The Tribe announced on Monday that they signed first baseman David Cooper to a major league deal.

It may be a bit surprising to some that the Indians signed Cooper to a major league deal, but it’s far from a bad move. The Indians are committing a 40-man roster spot to Cooper, but it doesn’t mean that he has to be a part of the team’s major league roster next season.

It’s a strategy that has been used frequently this offseason, most notably by the Orioles. Baltimore has signed three inexperienced players to major league deals this offseason: outfielder Francisco Peguero and pitchers Kelvin De La Cruz and Edgmer Escalona.

In addition, Cooper has one minor league option remaining, so the Indians could send him to the minors in 2014 without having to expose him to waivers.

All things considered, I’m actually quite a fan of this signing. Cooper is a low-risk addition, but also carries a lot of upside as well.

David Cooper, who will turn 27 in February, was drafted 17th overall by the Blue Jays in 2008 out of Cal-Berkeley. He signed quickly after the draft, and appeared in 69 games for three of Toronto’s minor-league affiliates that season. Over that time, Cooper hit .333/.399/.502 with 5 home runs and 51 RBI in 303 plate appearances, adding 29 doubles as well.

The Blue Jays were aggressive with Cooper in 2009 and sent him to AA New Hampshire, where he hit .258/.340/.389 with 10 home runs and 66 RBI. He repeated the level in 2010, and while his average and on-base percentage dipped, his slugging percentage sharply increased thanks to 20 long balls and 78 RBI. All told, he finished 2010 with a .257/.327/.442 line.

Although this injury didn’t seem like much, it nearly cost David Cooper his career. (Credit: Cal Sport Media/AP Images

David Cooper spent 2011 with AAA Las Vegas in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, and hit .364/.439/.535. He only hit 9 home runs, but he did tally 96 RBI. The Blue Jays were impressed, and promoted him to the majors. He didn’t do terribly well there, hitting .211/.284/.394 in 81 plate appearances, but he was able to experience the major leagues for the first time.

2012 again saw Cooper split time between AAA and the majors, as Cooper hit .314/.395/.540 (with 10 homers and 52 RBI) in 304 plate appearances in AAA and .300/.324/.464 (with 4 homers and 11 RBI) in 145 plate appearances for Toronto. However, Cooper only posted a walk rate of 2.8% in the majors that season, which was a far cry from the 12.2% rate he had posted in AAA that season.

But that was the least of Cooper’s problems with Toronto in 2012.

On August 22, 2012, Cooper hit a single off of the Tigers’ Anibal Sanchez. As he rounded first base, Cooper stumbled and had to dive back to first base. It didn’t seem like much, and he was initially ruled day-to-day with injuries that included a jammed neck and back spasms.

However, it was later discovered that Cooper had a herniated thoracic disk that was compressing his spinal cord. He was told to rest, but after that didn’t work, he underwent a rare neurosurgery to fix the issue — which could have ended his career. ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick wrote a piece about Cooper and this process, which can be read here. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend that you do. It’s a must read.

Unable to play Spring Training of 2013 as a result of the surgery, the Blue Jays released Cooper on March 13. He eventually signed with the Indians on August 13 and hit .314/.364/.373 in 55 plate appearances for the Tribe’s Rookie League affiliate and AAA Columbus before opting out of his contract on August 31.

David Cooper did not play at all the rest of the season.

Cooper won’t hit a lot of home runs, but he will provide plenty of doubles, topping out at 51 at AA in 2011. He also doesn’t offer a lot of speed, as he’s stolen exactly 1 base in his professional career — also in 2011.

Aug 14, 2012; Toronto, ON, Canada; Toronto Blue Jays first baseman David Cooper (30) hits a double in the eighth inning against the Chicago White Sox at the Rogers Centre. The White Sox beat the Blue Jays 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

However, Cooper could still be quite useful to the Indians. Although his contributions at the major league level haven’t been terrific, Cooper is a career .301/.376/.470 hitter in the minor leagues, and has shown the ability to consistently get on base without striking out a lot. His 2.8% walk rate in the majors in 2012 is much lower than any mark he has posted before or since.

He also has the pedigree of being a first round pick, as well as an undeniable amount of upside. Cooper was once a highly-touted prospect, while that as well as his youth and minor league track record at least make him an intriguing option for the Indians next year.

At worst, David Cooper could be stashed in AAA next season as insurance for Nick Swisher and Jason Giambi. He can provide depth at first base, or could even be a part of Terry Francona’s bench next season.

Cooper is also under team control for several more seasons. Although the Indians signed Cooper to a one-year deal, they still get the team control that comes with him. He is still not yet eligible for arbitration, and won’t be until at least 2017. In addition, he can’t be a free agent until at least 2020.

Indians GM Chris Antonetti recently said that the team’s free agent spending spree of last offseason was meant to fill the team’s holes so that they would not have to drastically overpay to fill them this offseason. The Indians probably won’t duplicate what they did last offseason, so the team will likely prioritize cheaper and more creative moves this winter. Signing Cooper certainly qualifies as a creative move, but it’s a smart one as well.

The Indians don’t have a need at first base, but David Cooper’s upside is hard to pass up. If he were to tap into some of his potential, the Indians would surely find a place for him to play (Swisher’s ability to play the outfield could help). Besides, it doesn’t always make sense for teams to shop exclusively for need.

David Cooper is a brilliant low-cost addition for the Indians, and one that could pay huge dividends as well.