p>Editor's Note: Red Baron has compiled this year's top prospects in three parts, which can be found by clicking on Part I, Part II, and Part III. The post below is a portion of those massive posts, focusing in on a single prospect at a time, which should make a search of any one prospect easier to find. All of our 2016 prospect coverage and write-ups can be found at the Viva El Birdos 2016 Prospects hub.
#4: Tim Cooney, LHP
Opening Day 2016 Age: 25
2015 Level: Triple A Memphis, MLB
Relevant Numbers: 3.58 FIP (StL), 14.6% K-BB (StL), 4.7% BB rate (Mem)
So, what's so great about this guy?
Tim Cooney is the perfect embodiment at this moment in the Cardinals' system of the value that comes from producing a constant, steady stream of talent, even at the low-end of the spectrum, and raising your organisation's internal replacement level. As such, he's incredibly unexciting, uninspiring, and unexciting (the lack of excitement is such I actually couldn't think of a third word to describe him), and also one of the more useful signs of the remarkable overall health of the organisation.
My first-hand introduction to Tim Cooney actually came sometime in the 2013 season, in what can unequivocally be marked as his breakout year. I made my way down to Springfield to take in a couple S-Cards games, and one was started by Cooney. I knew the name, of course, and had watched a little video, as well as asking around about him a bit following his being drafted in the third round in 2012. My impression of him going into this particular start, which I feel was in late May but wouldn't swear to it, was of a college soft-tossing lefty with very little ceiling, maybe even nothing more than an org pitcher.
And on that particular day, Cooney completely changed my mind. He was scouted previously as having a plus changeup, but nothing else that really even graded as average, aside from his control. What I saw that day was a pitcher spinning a curveball that completely flummoxed hitters (I think it was Frisco), might have graded as a 65, and made me think I was watching the next Barry Zito. The fastball was still nothing to write home about, topping out at 93 on a notoriously hot Springfield gun, but the changeup was as advertised and the curve was a thing of beauty. I came away from that outing thinking the Cardinals had found themselves a diamond in the (relative), rough of the third round, and this was a player to watch. Closely.
Cooney's overall performance at Double A that year seemed to confirm my impressions, that he had taken a step forward in multiple areas of development, and had a much higher ceiling going forward than was believed at the time of being drafted. He struck out better than a batter per inning, kept his walk rate below 4%(!), and just generally dominated the league, posting a 2.43 FIP in close to 120 innings. His ERA was much less impressive, due to an elevated BABIP, but the stuff I saw that day in May, and the elite strikeout-to-walk numbers he posted all season in his first shot at the biggest jump in quality in the minors, was enough to convince me.
Since then, Cooney has pitched two seasons at Triple A, and neither has been anywhere near the quality of his Double A stint. He took a big step back in 2014 and a small step forward in 2015, but in both years he's been a bit prone to giving up the long ball, and hasn't shown anything close to the same swing-and-miss potential he flashed at Double A.
What's interesting, though, is that watching Cooney pitch at the big league level for the first time, his curveball looked just as good to me as it did back at Springfield, and he pushed his strikeout rate higher in the majors than it had been at any point in the Pacific Coast League. I'm thinking particularly of his second to last start of the year, when he struck out seven Mets in 5.2 innings and completely overmatched several of them with his breaking ball. (Weirdly, he also walked four hitters in that game, totally out of character for him, but if I remember correctly it seemed there was some issues with the strike zone that day.)
I realise Cooney isn't a sexy name here; even if he's closer to the guy I saw in Springfield or who briefly showed up toward the end of his St. Louis stint, it's probably a back of the rotation profile. He's a flyball pitcher, and so should actually play better in the power-suppressing environs of Busch Stadium than the hitter havens of the PCL, but he's still probably going to be vulnerable to home runs, and it will be more important than ever he keep his walk rate at an elite level to avoid those homers turning into crooked numbers.
What I like about Cooney is his ability to pitch at three distinct speeds, with a fastball at 89-90, both a cutter/slider and a changeup in the low 80s, and the curve in the low 70s. Given he can throw the change and his slider/cutter/whatever at the same speed, but with movement going in opposing directions, I think that's a combo that could be exploited for more value than he's perhaps gotten in the past. I like the cutter version better than the slider; when he throws the pitch harder and it breaks more laterally than vertically I think it's an effective weapon to attack right-handed hitters inside.
For me, though, the pitch that will likely define what Cooney ultimately becomes in the big leagues is going to be that curveball. It's an easy comparison between Cooney and Marco Gonzales, as both are lower-velocity lefties whose best pitch is a changeup, and in that comparison Gonzales usually comes out better, as his change might be elite, rather than just a plus. If I'm looking at the two, though, I'm betting on Cooney, and it isn't all that close, to be honest. Neither has an advantage in terms of the fastball, and Marco's changeup is definitely a little better, but there's really no contest in terms of their other pitches. Gonzales's curve and cutter are both below-average pitches, while I've seen Cooney throw a 55 cutter and an even better curve at times. The breadth and depth of his repertoire easily beats out the one plus-plus pitch Gonzales offers, and that's before we even consider the truly elite command of the strike zone Cooney possesses.
Tim Cooney's ceiling is still pretty limited, and I'm sure that will make some discount him, or downgrade the Cardinal system due to him ranking so highly. But this is exactly the kind of depth a farm system should be producing, if you want to pull that internal level of talent up to ensure you never have a huge fall off in case of injury or attrition to free agency. He's just the type of pitcher you hope you have on hand to keep you from having to go out and sign, say, Mike Leake to a five-year deal, in fact.
Player Comp: Mark Buehrle isn't a bad comp, in terms of the stuff, except Cooney is much more flyball-oriented.