Padres Prospect Interview: Craig Cooper

Lake Elsinore, CA: Usually when you hit .320/.418/.485 in your debut professional season at 21, are coming off of a stellar college career capped off by a senior year hitting 425 to win you're third straight Big East batting title, someone notices. Despite these gaudy numbers, Craig Cooper, the Padres seventh-round selection out of Notre Dame in 2006, still flew under most people's radar.

So what happened?

Although Cooper was one of the Padres' better players in Eugene last year that squad still included players such as first-round draft pick Matt Antonelli, David Freese, and Chad Huffman, among others. Cooper kind of got lost in the shuffle, but still his performance didn't go totally unnoticed.

This year the Padres jumped Cooper, along with Antonelli, Freese, Huffman, pitchers Wade LeBlanc and Matt Buschmann from the 2006 draft to Lake Elsinore, skipping Fort Wayne and the Midwest League, and so far all six have performed.

Cooper, a rare left-hander who hits from the right side, has again been putting up numbers, .293/.392/.448 while spitting time with Kyle Blanks at first base and DH, and playing a little bit of right-field. As with Antonelli, Freese and Huffman, Cooper excels at controlling the strike zone and may be the organization's best fielding first baseman. He's going to have to produce a little more power and playing more outfield will definitely help his chances, but there is quite a bit to like with Craig Cooper.

How did someone who is a natural left-hander end up being a right-handed hitter?

Craig Cooper: I don't know there are not a whole lot of us. I just started hitting right-handed at a young age and never really changed. I tried switch-hitting in middle school and high school but it was just too frustrating, so I went back to hitting right-handed.

I was kind of amazed how you lasted so long in the draft based on how successful you were in your career at Notre Dame. Any reason why you lasted this long?

Craig Cooper: Everyone told me going into the draft that it's kind of crapshoot, you never really know what is going to happen. You never know where you are going to be taken. I was just happy I was taken by a good organization like the Padres and put in a good position like I am now. It's really worked out well for me.

The first thing that people notice about your stats has been your consistently high on-base percentage. How have you developed such a good understanding of your strike zone?

Craig Cooper: It's something that I struggled with coming into college, particularly with in my freshman year and especially with curveballs in the dirt. My first adjustment was to learn the strike zone for me, as I started getting better it was learning to lay off those tough pitches. Over the years it's gotten better and better, it's something that I really focus on every year.

Grady Fuson points out one of the reasons that you Freese and Antonelli made the big jump from Eugene with little time in the Midwest League is that you guys bought into what the Padres are preaching about being selectively aggressive within your zone. Is that one of the reasons for your success?

Craig Cooper: Absolutely it's something I've really grown into starting from college and probably one of the reasons that we were drafted. Guys like myself, Freese, Huffman and Antonelli had that approach in college and carried it over to our professional careers.

How do you learn to lay off the pitcher's strike especially when the count is 0-1 and you don't want to get in the hole 0-2?

Craig Cooper: It's easier said than done but a part of it is the confidence of hitting with two strikes. Knowing that even if he makes a good pitch it's not the end of the world being 0-2. If you don't think it's the end of the world hitting 0-2, then when it's 2-0 it's all about being patient and picking for your pitch. That is what the organization preaches, just picking your pitch and driving it. It's what the big league guys do so well.

You're knows as a really good defensive first baseman, but with so many good first basemen in the system have you been playing some outfield? I understand that you can play both corner outfield positions?

Craig Cooper: In college I played all three, a little bit of center but mainly left and right. I'm comfortable in right and left so it's always good to be able to play multiple positions.

Do you kind of lobby the coaching staff to get a little more time in the outfield? I would assume that you want to create as many opportunities as possible to make the majors.

Craig Cooper: It's not something I talk to much with the coaches on a regular basis, but I let them know in spring training that I could play the outfield and Carlos [Lezcano, the Storm manager] mentioned to me that I'm going to be getting some more time out there with the promotions. It's just a question of staying familiar with it since most of my time is at first base.

How are you balancing trying to be a disciplined hitter with trying to increase your power numbers? You play power positions, so that must be on your mind.

Craig Cooper: It's part of the adjustment that I'm going through as a hitter. I want to be aggressive in my counts and not be satisfied with looking for flares to right. I want to drive the ball into the gap or over the wall and that is the adjustment that I am making. It's getting there slowly but surely and I'll get there.

What is the biggest difference that you have noticed between the Northwest League and the Cal League?

Craig Cooper: The pitchers and the consistency of their stuff. They are able to place their breaking pitches much more consistently for strikes and have more control with locating their fastballs in and out.

What is the biggest thing you need to work on to advance?

Craig Cooper: Well obviously the power numbers I would like to see improve and my overall hitting in general. I've been tinkering with part of my mechanics and just need to carry them over into the games.

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