Cooper’s Back Could Create Big League Return Story
Mike B. | On 21, Feb 2014
The Cleveland Indians open the 2014 season with new expectations despite many questions. The Indians’ 25-man roster will look different than the group that won 92 games and lost the American League Wild Card game to the Tampa Bay Rays. While the roster may change and the expectations grow, Cleveland will need to answer many questions this spring before opening the season in Oakland on March 31. Today, we look at one of the Indians’ new players who will be trying to fill a role on the Tribe’s roster.
A winter ago the Cleveland Indians quietly signed Scott Kazmir in the dead of winter. By spring, he blossomed into a key component of the Tribe’s 2013 season.
This time, the Indians are hoping to find a similar surprise in first baseman, David Cooper. The left-handed hitter was on his way to the start of a big league career with the Toronto Blue Jays when a back injury on Aug. 22, 2012 sidelined him for the rest of the season and most of 2013. Now, Cooper is in Indians spring training on a Major League contract trying to prove he’s ready to restart his career.
Cooper was the 17th pick in the 2008 First Year Player Draft by the Blue Jays from the University of California Berkeley. He made a quick climb through the minor leagues, asserting himself to Double-A in 2009. By 2011, Cooper hit .364 in 545 plate appearances at Triple-A Las Vegas in the Blue Jays minor league system. He made his major league debut in 2011 and saw considerable playing time that September. In 2012, he was splitting time between Triple-A and Toronto before asserting himself to the starter role in August while veteran Adam Lind was sidelined with an injury.
However, on Aug. 22, 2012 Cooper ripped a single to right field in Detroit. He rounded the bag widely and had to dive back into first base. Two innings later he was forced to leave the game and later was placed on the disabled list with what was first believed to be a jammed neck and upper back spasms. Tests later revealed Cooper had herniated his thoracic disk in his chest cavity and it was compressing his spinal cord.
Cooper was released by the Blue Jays in 2013 when his back was still bothering him in spring training. In April he had titanium screws inserted into the T-7 and T-8 vertebrae in his back. The Indians signed him originally last Aug. 13 and he played with their Arizona Rookie League team and Triple-A Columbus. When he was not going to receive a September promotion to the big league club, Cooper asked for and received his release on Aug. 31.
The Indians kept in contact with Cooper and signed him to a Major League contract on Dec. 9. He feels he’s healthy and ready to compete for a big league roster spot.
“It’s pretty impressive,” Indians General Manager Chris Antonetti told MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian when Cooper was signed in December. “It was an atypical, complicated surgery to resolve the issues he had and for him to get back to this point. He’s worked really hard at it.”
Prior to his neck and back injury, Cooper was a budding big league player. Now, he’s 27-years old and hoping to earn a bench role with the Tribe. If he shows any indication he’s capable of the .300/.324/.464 slash line he produced at the big league level in 2012 with Toronto, he could be this season’s surprise addition to the Indians’ roster.
“He has a really good swing,” Antonetti said. “He’s got a good approach at the plate and has a good, compact swing. He has a good track record of hitting, going back to his amateur days. Now that he’s back healthy, we think he’ll pick up where he left off.”
Cooper does have a minor league option remaining and if he does not make the Indians’ Opening Day roster, it’s likely he will open with Columbus. However, Cooper’s health may be his biggest question mark in regards to making the Indians roster, but next could be Carlos Santana’s ability to play third base. If Santana proves he can play third base—at least adequately—a role could be created for Cooper to play first base or designated hitter in a bench role. Cooper’s chances to make the team diminish if Santana cannot play third base since the former catcher would see much more time at both roles.
Until Cooper proves he’s healthy and the player he was two seasons ago, the role of other players is fairly meaningless. But, if Cooper’s back holds, it could be a surprise shot in the arm to the Indians offense this season, much the way Kazmir was reborn on the mound a season ago.
Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer