Saturday, February 4, 2012

#8 Prospect - Jarek Cunningham

My #8 Pirates prospect, Jarek Cunningham, was part of Neal Huntington's first draft class as the Pirates general manager in 2008.  Cunningham is indicative of a change in the Pirates draft philosophy of paying high school players overslot bonus money in later rounds to improve the infusion of talent into the farm system.  $100,000 bought Cunningham out of his commitment to Arizona State, which was actually a fairly low figure considering prep middle infielder's talent.  Part of the discount was a result of a torn ACL that prevented Cunningham from playing his entire senior season. 

Cunningham signed early enough in 2008 to garner limited playing time in rookie ball for the GCL Pirates.  There, he impressed, putting up a .318/.385/.507 line in 174 plate appearances, smacking 5 home runs, walking 8% of the time and striking out 15% of the time. Solid numbers, including plenty of power for a prep middle infielder.  Cunningham did enough to round out John Sickels's top 20 prospects in 2009, earning a C grade.  About, Cunningham, Sickels's stated, "Played very well in rookie ball, strong bat, his stock had dropped pre-draft due to injury."

Unfortunately, 2009 became a lost year for Cunningham.  Another ACL tear prevented the middle infielder from seeing any game action at all during what was supposed to be his first full year.  In 2010, the Pirates moved Cunningham to Low-A West Virginia as a 20 year-old.  The Pirate farmhand had a solid but not spectacular season, posting a .258/.309/.436 line.  Cunningham again showed solid power for a young middle infield prospect, although it came from second base.  Due to the fact that he played at West Virginia, I had the opportunity to see Cunningham play four or five times.  I came away incredibly impressed.  

I'll start with a cliche.  The first time I saw Cunningham, I actually got distracted during one of his at-bats.  All of the sudden, there was a crack.  It was that unmistakable sound of a bat making unbelievably solid contact with a baseball.  The sound was special.  Trying to step away from cliches, that sound was indicative of Cunningham's bat speed, which is also special.  To go along with his bat speed, Cunningham has an absolutely gorgeous swing.  It's flat and compact, with no hitches or load problems and allows Cunningham to keep the bat head through the strike zone for the maximum amount of time possible. 

On the other hand, Cunningham also has his flaws.  First is his pitch recognition.  As alluded to earlier, Cunningham's poor plate discipline has nothing to do with an uppercut swing.  Instead, anything that breaks seems to give Jarek fits.  That was also evident when I saw him, as Cunningham would look quite ugly chasing curveballs in the dirt with an a somewhat alarming frequency.  Second, Cunningham's athleticism is also a question mark.  When I saw him, it was clear there was no way he could even fake it at shortstop.  Still, in the small sample size I saw him, it looked like he could stick at second base, even if he'll never even be an average defender at that position.  In that view, I'm in the minority and most scouting reports believe he will have to move to a corner in the outfield.  

In 2011, Cunningham showed reason to believe his bat will do more than carry him if he's unable to stick in the middle infield.  Unfortunately, the injury bug bit again as Cunningham was hit by a pitch in mid-July which essentially ended the 21 year-old's season.  To that point, he had played the entire season for the Bradenton Marauders in the Florida State League.  Cunningham started the year off at an absolutely blistering pace.  In 80 games, over 348 plate appearances, he crushed the ball, hitting 15 homeruns and posting a .258 ISO.  Even more impressively, Cunningham was actually able to maintain an ISO over .300 for a good chunk of the year.  Furthermore, 44 of the second baseman's 80 hits went for extra bases, slightly over half, an insane percentage.  

On the down side, Cunningham only hit .258, only walked an abysmal 4.9% of the time, and struck out 23.6% of the time, once again displaying his obvious plate discipline issues.  However, there seemed to be hope as Cunningham began displaying progress as the year progressed.  In his last 98 plate appearances, the second baseman maintained a similar strikeout percentage, but his walk rate spiked to slightly over 10% as Cunningham walked 10 times.  Now the sample size is too small to be conclusive, but it is promising.  It's that promise, combined with Cunningham's swing - which should allow him to hit for a solid average and validates his massive power outburst - that makes the second baseman's ceiling sky high. That's why I'll go against the grain and rank Cunningham in my top 10 as my #8 prospect.