As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’ve been profiling every player on the Cleveland Indians’ Opening Day roster. Today, we finish the series with the final addition to the Tribe’s roster: Aaron Cunningham.
Background: The Chicago White Sox took Cunningham, now 25, out of Everett Community College in the sixth round of the 2005 MLB amateur draft (the same round in which the New York Yankees picked Doug Fister). He impressed in the minors and landed on Baseball America‘s Top 100 Prospects list in 2009, but has yet to enjoy any sustained success in the major leagues. He’s been traded four times in his career, including this winter, when the San Diego Padres sent him to Cleveland for Cory Burns.
Last year: Cunningham absolutely raked…in Triple-A. He hit .329/.398/.532 in 87 games for the Tuscon Padres, but he struggled to the tune of a .178/.257/.367 triple-slash with the San Diego Padres. He actually set career bests in walk rate (8.9 percent), strikeout rate (16.8 percent), and Power Factor (1.063)—encouraging signs, to be sure—but was hampered by an awful .183 BABIP. Bad luck certainly played a big role in that, but that he hit only four line drives in 101 plate appearances suggests that the problem ran deeper that that.
Key factor: Shedding the Quad-A label. Cunningham turns 26 this month—that’s a little old for a onetime top prospect to still be considered a fringe MLB player. The label is often misapplied, but Quad-A players really do exist; it’s too soon to tag Cunningham as Quad-A since he’s never really had a chance to find his groove in the majors (he’s never gotten more than 147 big-league plate appearances in a season), but with a .231/.290/.375 triple-slash across parts of four MLB seasons he’s on thin ice.
If Cunningham can regain some semblance of the plate discipline and power he displayed in the minors, he’ll be an extremely valuable fourth outfielder and could even carve out a career as a starting player. If not, the Indians have a plethora of other options for their fourth outfield spot.
These projections are quite kind to Mr. Cunningham given his lack of previous success in the big leagues. All four systems he him keeping up his improved walk rate and power numbers, but with a more normal BABIP. I’d have to imagine the Indians would be thrilled to have their fourth outfielder add a league-average bat to his solid defense.
Best-case scenario: Cunningham’s BABIP shoots up 100 points while his plate discipline and power numbers don’t budge from their 2011 peaks. Chris Antonetti looks like a genius as Cunningham usurps the starting left field job, manages to outplay Grady Sizemore when he returns, and becomes a regular in the Indians’ lineup for years to come.
Worst-case scenario: The progress Cunningham made last year proves to be a fluke. He walks less, he strikes out more, and he’s unable to harness his raw power. Thanks to some positive BABIP regression he hits about as well as he did in 2011, but this time there’s no excuse for his substandard performance as his problems are more fundamental. It doesn’t take long for the Indians to realize they’re better off with someone else to fill out their bench.
Most likely scenario: The mean projection might seem a tad optimistic, but I’ll take it—I’ve been bullish on Cunningham ever since he came to Cleveland and I expect him to be a quietly solid asset for this team in 2012 and down the road. The Indians could have done a lot worse in filling the final spot on their bench.