Cunningham Nearing A Make Or Break Spring
Each week through Spring Training the DTTWLN staff will profile and break down the players in camp for the Indians at Goodyear, Arizona and examine their potential roles for the season to come. This week, we continue our Goodyear coverage by breaking down the players who are battling for a chance to make the Opening Day roster.
By Craig Gifford
When the Indians acquired Aaron Cunningham in a Dec. 16 trade with San Diego, it was with the idea of stocking up on outfielders. In 2011, Cleveland saw all three starting outfielders go down with injury and the club wanted to be sure it had replacements aplenty. Good thing, too, as veteran center fielder Grady Sizemore went down with has annual injury last week and could be lost until July with back surgery.
Cunningham is a bit of an enigma. He could be the starting left fielder when the Indians play Toronto on Opening Day at Progressive Field, April 5. He could also be completely cut from the team. The team would like to see Cunningham develop into a solid major leaguer. He’s been impressive at the minor league level, but has never been able to get it going in the big show.
At 25 (he will be 26 on April 24), Cunningham is still young and can perhaps put it all together in the majors. A right hander, which the Indians don’t have many of in their lineup, would also be a welcome addition to the batting order. However, he needs to prove this spring that he can hit major league pitching.
Cunningham has spent parts of the last four seasons in the majors. He played for the Padres the previous two and was with Oakland in 2008 and 2009. The numbers have been less than impressive. In 150 games (nearly a full season of work) he has batted a paltry .231 with 6 homers and 44 RBI. Last year, it was a .178 batting average, career high 3 home runs and 9 RBI. Why does he continue to get looks in the majors? It’s because of his minor league track record.
In that same four-year span, Cunningham has put up solid numbers at the AAA level, bouncing back and forth between the majors and minors. In that time, he has hit .304 with 32 bombs and 170 RBI. Clearly, talent is there. Up until now, time has also been there to develop. However, one would think he would have to develop soon.
If Cunningham can have even a decent spring, he is likely to earn a spot on the Cleveland roster. He and Shelley Duncan are the only two extra outfielders (considering Michael Brantley and Shin-Soo Choo have starting jobs locked up) out of options. They would have to be cut or put on waivers if not added to the major league roster out of training camp. Those two are likely battling for the starting left field job with the loser as one of presumably two back up outfielders. If Jason Donald makes the team, he can serve as a super utility guy who can play the infield and outfield.
A host of minor league invitees are also in camp. Felix Pie, Trevor Crowe and Ryan Spilborghs are all guys who have been heralded as top prospects in the past, but never reached lofty expectations. Of that group, Spilborghs probably has the best shot to stick around. Still it would take a lot for a non-roster invitee or a player with options to unseat Cunningham, who still has a wealth of potential the Tribe would like to tap into.
Unless Cunningham has completely disastrous spring, he is likely to open the season in Cleveland. Whether it’s on the field or on the bench is the best question to be determined over the coming month.
Photo: Jordan Bastian/MLB.com