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40 in 40: Kaleb Cowart

Shohei Ohtani he ain’t, but he’s sure gonna try

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Oakland Athletics
See Kaleb hit. See Kaleb field. See Kaleb...pitch?
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

With Shohei Ohtani’s ascendance last season both on the mound AND at the plate, versatility has become a buzzword in baseball circles. Prospects like Brendan McKay and Hunter Greene both tried being a two-way player in the minors to varying success; Greene has since given up hitting while McKay is keeping it up through A+ ball.

Perhaps Jerry Dipoto read all about those stories earlier this offseason. Perhaps he read through our Select a Scenario article and was inspired by the stories of Daniel Vogelbach and James Paxton, two-way sensations. Or perhaps he just wants to mess with all of us. Regardless, one of the most creative moves of the offseason came when Kaleb Cowart was claimed by the Mariners back in mid-December.

Because, you see, Jerry & Co. announced the move thusly:

See that? INF/RHP. This, from a guy who has never pitched in a professional game. For that matter, he’s not much of an INF either, boasting a 46 wRC+ in 380 MLB plate appearances.

The Mariners (probably) wouldn’t be doing this were it not for his top-notch pedigree. Hailing from the metropolis of Adel, Georgia (population: 5,344) about 45 minutes north of the Florida-Georgia line, Cowart terrorized opposing pitchers and hitters alike. He hit a mind-boggling .654/.721/1.206 with a perfect 36-for-36 on the basepaths, all while posting an ERA of 1.05 with 116 strikeouts in 73 innings. It’s not that surprising, therefore, that he won the Gatorade National Player of the Year for baseball.

A few months later, Cowart was selected and signed by the Angels as the 18th pick in the 2010 MLB Draft. “Fun” fact: That pick was acquired as compensation for the loss of Chone Figgins! After winning the Player of the Year award, Cowart told his local newspaper that “I like to play [third base] way better than I like to pitch.”

And compared to the vast majority of the world, Cowart is incredible at third base and at the hitting part of baseball. The problem has been converting that into major league success. Check out the difference:

A Quad-A Player Doing His Best

Year AAA wRC+ MLB wRC+
Year AAA wRC+ MLB wRC+
2015 136 52
2016 109 13
2017 126 89
2018 105 25

There’s no reason to think he’ll suddenly figure things out this year at the plate. Fortunately, the Mariners aren’t asking him to do much — if he can rediscover his 2017 stroke, when he approached league average in 117 plate appearances, the Mariners will have discovered a bona fide utility infielder who might even be able to pitch. Though Cowart is primarily a third baseman, he made major league appearances at 1B, 2B, SS, and LF last year as well.

What to expect from Cowart on the mound? Honestly, who knows? Let’s go way back to his high school days, where Baseball America wrote up some words:

Cowart was in the running to be the High School Player of the Year as a dominant two-way player, evoking comparisons to past Georgia preps Buster Posey and Ethan Martin. Those two examples set up two different paths for Cowart, who like Posey is a Florida State signee. Posey was more of a third-round talent out of high school and a different type of pitcher than Cowart, who on the mound is all about power. He has arm strength and good sinking life on his plus fastball, which sits in the 91-93 mph range at its best. He also has a hard slider and scouts don’t seem to mind his split-finger fastball, either.

Plus fastball and hard slider? Maybe we can bring Joaquin Benoit in to help him as well. If you want to see him for yourself, we’ve got you covered:

It’s hard to know what to make of Cowart. He’s out of options, which is how the Mariners managed to get their grubby little hands on him — the Angels were attempting to send him down to the minors so he could work on being a pitcher full-time. With Cowart on the 40-man roster, that’s not an option unless they put him through waivers all over again. So there’s a chance he’ll play no games for the M’s, a chance he’ll be their utility infielder, and a chance he’ll be a utility infielder who occasionally jumps on the mound and pitches a little too.

If I were a betting man, I’d probably go with Option A. You normally want your utility infielder to be able to handle shortstop and go from there, not wedge it in as an awkward positional fit. And I doubt Cowart will be ready to face major league hitters without a chance to develop on the mound in the minors.

But I sure want to see him try.




P.S. I couldn’t fit this in anywhere in the article, but wanted to include this bonus gem from Cowart’s Twitter page.

Note the dates.