Cubs Prospect Interview: Michael Cooper

Following his first pro season in the Cubs system at Class Low-A, short-season Boise last year, right-hander Michael Cooper has high aspirations for 2007.

Cooper was a 26th-round Cubs draft pick from the University of California out of the Pac 10 last season. Upon signing, he soon found himself at Class-A Boise of the short-season Northwest League, where he was closing games and holding hitters to a .185 average against for a 1.23 ERA in 19 games.

The 6'6" right-hander would spend some time away from the team in late August as the result of shoulder tendonitis and would sit out the postseason. He finished his professional debut campaign with nine saves and 31 relief points, which were both third in the league for 2006.

Like a lot of college pitchers, you did some starting and relieving while in school. It seemed you really found your niche in the closer's role at Boise, though. What can you tell us about the experience?

My season was what it was because I was a later round guy. I don't think they draft a lot of starters in those rounds. After spending last summer in the closer's role, it just felt like something I was meant to do on the baseball field. I like being able to throw more often by being in the bullpen.

You were described by the Cubs as someone who was very experienced for where you were at last season. What do you make of that comment?

It's nice to hear. At first, I took it as them saying that I was one of the older guys because I turn 23 in January. I talked to my dad about it and he gave me a better understanding of it. You see some guys that have a little bit of the pros in them regardless of whether they came out of high school or college. I could tell the kind of person I was last year. When I left Boise, I was a much different person. I think you have to attribute that to living your own life and being self-reliant. It was definitely very nice.

Tell us a little about your trip on the DL late in the year.

It was just a little tendonitis. I came down to Mesa to get an MRI and there was nothing structural or anything of real worry. Last year, I really didn't get a break from pitching. We had started fall ball in early September and I never really stopped throwing. I think my arm just got tired, but my main focus this whole offseason has been on doing more shoulder stuff than ever before.

What else are you doing this offseason to keep your arm in shape?

They've given us a great throwing program. There are some different things you can do every day, whether it's distance-running or the whole agility program. My back and shoulders have never felt this strong. I've also been doing a little more cross-training on the bikes.

Tell us a little about your repertoire.

Being a former starter, you have more pitches just by nature of the role. I have a changeup and a slider that's more of a curve and goes up to 87 or 88 (mph). I also have a splitfinger-forkball thing going that I'm going to make a point to develop next spring. I never really needed it this past year. It's just that the fastball and slider were pretty much effective enough. I tried using the changeup a little more at the end, but I don't even think they want me having too many pitches in that late-relief role. I've obviously never faced a major league hitter, but it seems like for just one inning, you can get by with just two pitches.

Would you ever consider going back to starting now that you've had some early success closing?

I liked the bullpen. I had always been a starter since little league, but I just struggled last year at Cal. I don't want to make it sound like I'm running away from the adversity that last year offered. With my mentality and approach to the game, though, I love being out there in the late innings. There's something on the line and you know you can directly affect the outcome of the game. When a closer gets the ball in his hand, he has the definitive opportunity to make or break the game. I really feed off that and I just love it. You get that little adrenaline rush going. I've never done drugs, but it's probably like a drug!

Coming off the year you had at Cal, did you surprise yourself with the results you put up at Boise?

Oh, no, definitely not. I knew all along what I had to do. When I was drafted in the 26th round, I had to swallow my pride a little. I think some people expected me to be a mediocre pitcher. When I signed, I said that I was going to show these guys. I wanted to show everyone that passed on me for 25 rounds who I was and the kind of player that I truly am. My last season at Cal was not representative of who I am and how I play. Going out and showing what I can do, I felt maybe I gave them a glimpse. There's still a lot more to do and it was a good summer in Boise, but the reality is I probably haven't done anything yet.

Looking at your numbers, you averaged one walk per two innings and notched 13 strikeouts for the season. Did you hope or expect to have more strikeouts?

As a closer, I guess they want you to strike out two batters an inning or even three. My first day there, (Boise pitching coach) David Rosario showed me a new grip. It didn't change the velocity of my fastball, but it added some real sink to it. I had no problem getting groundballs. I'm not sure if it's a stat, but my groundball to flyball ratio had to be about 80 to 20. As for the strikeouts, it's like what they say in "Bull Durham": Strikeouts are fascist, groundballs are more democratic. It was a good thing, because I broke a lot of bats with my pitches last year. I guess that's a sign that you're either fooling them or at least you have something that's working.

Since you're relatively new to the Cubs' system, just for fun, tell us something about you that doesn't get put on the stats page or in the profiles for all the media guides.

These are always the hard ones to answer, because you don't know how many people are out there just sitting around wondering something cool that I do. But, I'd like to be a pilot one day and learn how to fly.

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