What a difference a year can make.
One year ago, the Toronto Blue Jays organization was coming off a disappointing season in terms of first-base depth in the system. The club’s top first baseman prospect was Chip Cannon, who slugged 32 home runs in 2005 and played at three different levels while topping out at Double-A. He followed that up with 27 home runs the next season, but managed just a .249 batting average during a full year in Double-A. Cannon, at the age of 25, then repeated the level in 2007 and managed just 17 home runs and a .241 average.
Fast-forward through the 2008 season and things are looking much brighter for Toronto. The club picked up former Cubs top prospect Brian Dopirak, who slugged 39 home runs in 2004 at the age of 20, after he was released towards the end of 2008 spring training. Dopirak’s approach and swing path were both reworked by Toronto, according to Dick Scott – the organization’s director of player development.
“His swing was not working for him,” Scott explained recently. “He really got back to what he was doing in the Midwest League (in 2004).”
Dopirak, now 24, responded by hitting .308/.379/.577 with an ISO of 269 in 409 High-A at-bats. He then managed a line of .287/.303/.425 in 87 late-season, Double-A at-bats. Dopirak, a minor league free agent after the 2008 season, was resigned by the Jays and is likely headed back to Double-A, with a not-too-distant promotion to Triple-A possible, if he continues to make adjustments and show improvements.
“You can’t teach the power he has,” Scott said.
The Jays also picked up slugger Adam Amar during the 2007 off-season after he impressed during a tryout camp. The 22-year-old went undrafted out of the University of Memphis during his senior season despite hitting .358/.415/.538 with nine home runs in 240 at-bats. He signed on with Reno of the independent Golden Baseball League and caught scouts’ attentions after he hit .354/.423/.625 with five home runs in 96 at-bats.
The Jays signed Amar and kept him in extended spring training to begin the season so he could work on making some adjustments. Scott referred to the first baseman as a “big, raw, strong guy… with a tremendous work ethic.”
In June, he was assigned to the New York Penn League where he was one of the best hitters in the entire league. In his pro debut, he hit .302/.358/.476 with an ISO of .175 in 252 at-bats. Amar’s numbers slipped a bit after he hit just .186 in his last 15 games. His overall rates were impressive for a slugger and he walked eight percent of the time, along with a strikeout rate of just 11.1 percent.
Scott said Amar could possible jump over A-ball in 2009 and land in High-A ball. “He’s one of those guys we’re just going to keep challenging to see what we have.”
The organization was still not done overhauling its depth at first base. The Jays’ first-round draft pick in the 2008 draft last June was first baseman David Cooper of the University of California. The 21-year-old, selected 17th overall, exploded onto the scene, played at three levels in his debut and finished in High-A ball.
Overall, he hit .333/.399/.502 with 29 doubles in 273 at-bats. In 94 High-A at-bats, the left-handed hitting slugger hit .304/.373/.435 with an ISO of .130. Cooper also posted rates of 9.8 BB% and 17.4 K%. Only one other 2008 first-round draft pick had a better debut – Brett Wallace of the St. Louis Cardinals, who finished the season in Double-A.
Scott was not surprised with Cooper’s early success. “We knew he was coming in as an advanced hitter…. and he held his own at each level. He has a good presence about him and he’s not going to be overwhelmed.”
The knock on Cooper’s scouting report coming out of college was his poor defence. But Scott said it’s not uncommon for defence to be de-emphasized by college programs.
“The thing that surprised us was how well he improved defensively [in his debut],” Scott commented. “I think he’s going to be a pleasant surprise down there in the future.”
Cooper’s 2009 season will either begin in High-A or Double-A. Scott said it will be a spring-time decision. Either way, the Jays will have some intriguing first base depth at both Double-A and A-ball.
Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.