Minor Trade Sends Major Signals About 2012 Tribe Roster

Friday afternoon’s trade by the Tribe to send AA relief pitcher Cory Burns to the San Diego Padres for outfielder Aaron Cunningham may appear as another minor move for the Indians, but the acquisition may speak volumes about the direction of the 2012 Opening Day roster.

Cunningham is a right handed, corner outfielder who has had great success at AAA the last three seasons, however, has not been able stick on a major league roster. Last season he hit .329 with a .398 on base percentage at AAA Tucson in the Pacific Coast League, but only .178 with a .257 on base percentage with the Padres. He was the #55 prospect in all of the minor leagues according to Baseball America in 2009, but is now only perceived as a fourth outfielder or major league back up.

The most important line in Cunningham’s profile however, may be that he is out of options. Cunningham had to be added to the 40-man roster yesterday and will have to clear waivers if he were to be optioned to AAA. Considering the Tribe traded one player to acquire him and designated Josh Judy for assignment to make room for him on the roster, the team has to feel he has a good chance to make the Indians’ Opening Day roster.

Last season Michael Brantley only hit .214 versus left handed pitching, and Cunningham has hit 39 points higher versus Major League lefties than righties, so he could platoon with the Tribe’s leadoff hitter. Cunningham lacks the speed and, so far, the consistent offensive production to hit leadoff, so if the Indians were to implement a Brantley/Cunningham platoon, who would hit leadoff when Brantley was not in the lineup?

The Indians wouldn’t still consider Grady Sizemore a viable leadoff option, would they? Sigh. Gulp. Ugh.

Meanwhile, and possibly of even greater concern, are the signals beginning to develop that the Indians are not going to pursue a right handed first baseman via the free agency. If Cunningham is to become the Tribe’s fourth outfielder, Shelley Duncan, another player out of options, will most likely be left to try his hand at first base if he is going to have a role and make the team. Assuming the Indians carry thirteen position players, like most teams, and Cunningham and Duncan are on the roster because they cannot go to back to AAA, it doesn’t leave much room on the roster for a new acquisition.

Duncan, who probably deserves the chance to be an everyday player with the Tribe, has played sparingly at first base throughout his career and has already made four errors in only 208 innings of major league play. That’s equivalent to four errors in about 23 games. Not a pretty defensive picture when it is combined with Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall’s still developing defensive game.

If the Indians are going to acquire a right handed, first baseman before Opening Day, it will probably come via trade and will result with someone from the major league roster being moved. Otherwise it will be difficult to create roster space. The Indians have indicated since their end of the season press conference that adding a right handed bat and first baseman were priorities, yet it remains the move the club has not made.

If Friday’s minor move is an indication that the team has floundered on free agent options and are preparing to head to Goodyear, Arizona with the roster they currently have, most fans will have major disappointment in their offseason preparation for 2012.

Photo: Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

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