As a writer in my fourth year of covering the Tampa Bay Rays, I have become convinced that the only purpose of in-season minor league signings is to give people like me something to talk about. The Tampa Bay Rays sign a player who once had some potential, and all of a sudden we can start gushing about what kind of player he might be and state that the Rays have unearthed a gem. Do these signings ever actually amount to anything? The last player the Rays signed to a minor league contract after the season began to make their roster was Hideki Matsui in 2012. After a .147 average in 105 plate appearances, the Rays moved on. Brad Hawpe experienced similar results in 2010, hitting .179 in 46 plate appearances. Rocco Baldelli hit .208 in 25 PA’s in his 2010 return, actually experiencing the best results of the trio. But it’s worth noting that all three had significant big league experience beforehand. Most of these signings, by contrast, are players whose developments stalled much earlier on, prompting their releases from the organizations that drafted them. There are a lot of players in affiliated ball- it is never a good sign when a player gets released. At the same time, however, signing one of these players comes with no risk, and every once in a while, you get lucky. The reason that the Rays are giving Zach Cooper a chance is obvious: he has shown really good stuff.
Cooper, 24, was a 15th round pick by the Philadelphia Phillies in 2012 out of Central Michigan University. He spent the last two years primarily with the Phillies‘ Low-A Lakewood affiliate, managing a 2.84 ERA, a 7.0 K/9, a 4.3 BB/9, and a 0.3 HR/9 in 82.1 innings pitched. His draft slot and walk rate are not a ringing endorsement of his talent. Prompting more interest is what Baseball America said about him after he was drafted. After Cooper was drafted in the 46th round by the Marlins in 2011, Baseball America praised him for an excellent slider and a fastball whose velocity would play up in relief. Overall, they saw enough from him to say that he “could be good enough for setup duty.” The following year, his slider had taken a step back, but his fastball had gotten up into the 91-93 MPH range and touched 95 MPH, and the Philles thought enough of him to take him in the 15th round. This time, BA called him a potential “weapon out of the bullpen.” Cooper comes with his concerns- his command has never been very good- but he has flashed two excellent pitches and he’s worth giving the chance.
The worst-case scenario is that he doesn’t work out and they release him. But best-case scenario is that the Rays can harness Cooper’s stuff and command and turn it into a quality reliever. Cooper is good enough to receive another opportunity, and, if the Rays are lucky, he may just turn into something. The odds are against Zach Cooper from the beginning, but if anyone can turn him into a major league caliber reliever, it is the Tampa Bay Rays.