Image courtesy of SI.com

What does the future hold for David Cooper?

First base has been a hot topic of discussion among Jays fans this offseason. With big names like Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols topping the free agent pool and rumors about Joey Votto stealing the trade route spotlight, there certainly isn’t a shortage of candidates that the Jays could consider this winter.

The problem is, though, that the Jays already have a first baseman under contract for the next two seasons in Adam Lind, whose struggles are starting to test the patience of the Jays’ fan base. With all of the big offseason names to choose from, there’s another first baseman in the organization who, despite having a great year, is often overlooked and whose status is somewhat up in the air.

That would be David Cooper, and what exactly is going to happen to him going forward?

After suffering through a lackluster first half of the season with Double-A New Hampshire in 2010 — his second consecutive season at the level — Cooper managed to salvage his season by having a strong second half. He had a .317 average and .927 OPS in July and .286 average and .849 OPS in August, but also finished the season on an 11-game hitting streak where he went 15-for-40 (.375). He managed to cut down his strikeouts and double his home run totals from his first stint as a member of the Fisher Cats, but the fact he repeated the level and still hadn’t cracked a Triple-A roster diminished his stock.

Image courtesy of Sportsnet

But that Triple-A opportunity finally came this season, and the 17th overall pick of the 2008 draft was under an immense amount of pressure to not only live up to being a first-round pick, but also to rebound from his two  seasons at Double-A.

Not only did Cooper respond with a breakout performance as a member of the Las Vegas 51s this season, but he was one of the top players across the entire Triple-A level.

His .364 average in 467 at-bats was not only the best among 51s starters, but it actually earned him the Pacific Coast League’s batting title because it was the highest batting average in the league. Despite hitting only nine home runs, Cooper’s .535 slugging percentage ranked 15th in the league, with everybody ahead of him having more homers. That’s because he managed to clobber a league-leading 51 doubles, which made him only the fifth player in Pacific Coast League’s Triple-A era (since 1958) to have 50 or more doubles in a single season.

Plus, Cooper drastically improved his plate discipline, which is something important to Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos. Thanks to his high average and a career-high 67 walks, Cooper also managed to lead the PCL with a .439 on-base percentage. He struck out over 30 less times than he did in 2010, and his 43 strikeouts were actually less than his first minor league season in 2008 — but in almost 200 more at-bats.

It doesn’t even stop there.

Whether it’s his .366 average and 1.024 OPS with runners in scoring position or a .290 average when he was behind in the count, Cooper excelled in almost every single split you can think of. His .354/.435/.523 slash line against right-handed pitchers was nice to see, but how about his .392/.448/.568 line against southpaws? That’s right, Cooper, a left-handed hitter, actually hit better against lefties than he did against right-handers this season. Unsurprisingly, Cooper captured the Mayor’s Trophy as well for being voted as the 51s’ Most Valuable Player by the fans.

His hot start to the year earned him a call-up to the Jays at the end of April, where he managed a .121 average and .486 OPS in a mere 41 plate appearances before being sent back down shortly after his final game on May 15. However when the rosters expanded in September, Cooper returned to the Jays and had very different results after destroying Pacific Coast League pitching for the previous three-and-a-half months. In 40 plate appearances this time around — nearly identical to his first stint with the Jays in May — Cooper went 11-for-38 (.289) with a .851 OPS, including six doubles, one home run, and seven RBIs.

Should the Jays look to include Cooper in a trade this winter to acquire, say, a starting pitcher, the fact that the 24-year-old had a monstrous Triple-A season and earned Major League playing time are points in his favor. A trade involving Cooper would likely only take place if the Jays were content with Lind being their starting first baseman next season, but there’s an outside chance that Cooper could be used in a trade for a brand new Major League first baseman.

With Lind’s well-documented struggles over the last two years, that’s not necessarily out of the question.

After a rough May and June during his 2010 campaign, Lind improved somewhat after the All-Star break and finished the year with 32 doubles and 23 home runs. His frustration with being relegated to DH duties, though, contributed to the fact that he managed more strikeouts (144) than hits (135), and had an atrocious .117/.159/.182 slash line in 145 plate appearances against left-handed pitching; an area the Jays already had enough problems in.

Then Lind was anointed the Jays’ starting first baseman over the offseason, and the return to playing a position on the field was supposed to work wonders for him mentally at the plate. I remember seeing him hit massive BP home runs in spring training and look different, and his .999 spring OPS seemed to reaffirm that he was primed for a season more like his Silver-Slugger-winning 2008 campaign. Lind started off the season hot before missing a month due to a lower back injury in May, but returned to have an explosive month of June, where he hit .311 with nine home runs, 22 RBIs, and a 1.029 OPS.

Once the calendar changed to July, though, Lind’s season went completely downhill. Over the final three months of the 2011 season, he went just 57-for-281 (.203) at the plate, with eight doubles, 10 home runs, and a — wait for it — .580 OPS.

Although he managed to improve his numbers against left-handed pitching, Lind’s inconsistency and streaky hitting for the second consecutive season has hopefully become an issue for the Jays’ front office to address. Not only has Lind finished with a sub-.300 on-base percentage for two straight years, he hit considerably less doubles this season and his already average numbers at Rogers Centre worsened.

That leaves the door open for the Jays to acquire another first baseman during the offseason, with Edwin Encarnacion likely returning as the Jays’ full-time DH. Lind, however, is under contract for $5 million for the next two seasons with club options for the 2014-2016 seasons, so it appears as though he’ll be returning for another year of duty for the Jays.

That leaves Cooper somewhat out of the mix, as he’s clearly shown he has nothing left to prove at the Triple-A level. But with Mike McDade having likely earned his own ticket to Triple-A Las Vegas, things could get crowded there, too.

So, it begs the question:

What do you think will happen to David Cooper going forward?

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-JM

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Tags: Adam Lind David Cooper First Base Las Vegas 51s (AAA) Toronto Blue Jays

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