Cleveland Guardians Rumors

Indians Acquire Aaron Cunningham: A Quietly Solid Deal


It was a busy weekend for the Cleveland Indians. After signing Jose Lopez and officially announcing an agreement with Felix Pie, the Tribe sent pitching prospect Cory Burns to the San Diego Padres for outfielder Aaron Cunningham.

Burns, 24, was Cleveland’s 8th round pick in the 2009 amateur draft. The 2011 Double-A Reliever of the Year threw 59.2 innings with a 2.11 ERA, a 1.04 WHIP, and a 4.7 K/BB ratio while striking out more than a batter an inning for the Akron Aeros this season. In just under 150 career MiLB innings, the right-hander owns a 2.02 ERA, an 0.97 WHIP, a 5.4 K/BB ratio and an 11.5 K/9 rate. Tony from Indians Prospect Insider offers this scouting report:

"Burns’ tornado-like delivery gives him something unique, and while he has just an average 88-91 MPH fastball he complements it with a very good changeup and knuckle curveball. But even with the gimmicky delivery and two solid secondary pitches he needs to get better with his fastball."

Burns is a little old to have never reached Triple-A and the bullpen is an area of strength for the Tribe, but dealing him is still a significant loss. Will Cunningham’s production make up for losing Burns?

Cunningham, 26, has seen his star fall somewhat over the last couple years. He ranked 55th on Baseball America’s 2009 top prospects list after he mashed high-minors pitching to the tune of a .932 OPS in the Athletics organization in 2008, but his development has stalled somewhat since his age-22 season,

Cunningham has yet to make a successful transition from the minors to the big leagues. In just about a full season’s worth of MLB games, he’s hit just .231/.290/.375 (81 wRC+) with 6 homers, 44 RBI, and 0.7 fWAR. In 52 games for the Padres last year he struggled to the tune of a meager .178/.257/.367 triple-slash.

But despite his poor numbers, Cunningham took some big steps forward in 2011. A small sample size caveat applies to his 101 MLB plate appearances, but his plate discipline is improving: his 8.9 percent walk rate, 16.8 percent strikeout rate, and 20.9 percent swing rate at pitches out of the strike zone were all career bests. His eye-popping 1.063 Power Factor is all the more impressive considering that he played his home games at Petco Park. Not to mention that he continued to rake in the minors, hitting .329/.398/.532 in 84 games at Triple-A Tuscon.

So what should we expect from Cunningham going forward? Well, the most logical place to start is by looking at what he just did. Combining Cunningham’s 2011 MLB numbers with his minor league equivalency stats (hat tip to Jeff Sackmann’s calculator), he hit the equivalent of .241/.295/.391. Translate those numbers from Petco to Progressive Field (again, hat tip to Sackmann’s calculator) and project him over a full season (600 PA’s, 150 games) and he would have hit .256/.315/.414 with 12 homers, 66 RBI, and 71 runs scored.

Plugging those numbers into our Simple WAR Calculator and assuming Cunningham is an average defender in a corner outfield spot, he’d be worth 0.8 WAR over a full season. But if we boost his glove up a level (FanGraphs has him at 8.8 UZR/150 for his career, though admittedly the sample size is tiny) he’s at 1.3 WAR. Give him another half-win improvement as he enters his age-26 season and he’ll be good for 1.8 wins above replacement. For some comparison, that’s more than any other Indians outfielder except Shin-Soo Choo will be worth using Bill James’ 2012 projections.

There’s a good chance Cunningham won’t actually be this good, especially in the very likely event that he won’t get consistent playing time. One season’s worth of playing time isn’t nearly enough to make it worth giving up on a player, but his history of struggling in The Show has to count for something.

At the same time, it’s conceivable that Cunningham will exceed these projections. If he gets his BABIP up to .300 he’d be good for 2.0 WAR—i.e., an average MLB player—and given his onetime top prospect status his ceiling is higher than that. He doesn’t have any particularly flashy skills (unless his 2011 power surge is legitimate) and he’ll never be an All-Star, but he does enough things well enough that he could be a useful everyday player, like a poor man’s David DeJesus. Average players have value in Major League Baseball, especially when all three of your team’s projected outfielders have histories of health problems.

And Cunningham could be with the Indians for much longer than one season: he’s under team control through 2016 and won’t even reach arbitration until 2014. There aren’t any guarantees with unproven players, but I’d say the odds of Cunningham making a positive contribution to the team sometime in the next five years are pretty good.

Could the Indians regret trading Burns? Sure. You can never have too many pitchers, especially ones with his kind of strikeout stuff. But given his age, the Tribe’s bullpen surplus, and the inherent volatility of young arms the loss wasn’t too great, and Cunningham projects as a solid role player, if not a legitimate everyday outfielder. Kudos Chris Antonetti & co. for buying low on a guy who could be a valuable contributor to the team for years to come.

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