Buried Treasure Top 30 Prospects
#30 - Jarek Cunningham
Measurables: 6'1, 185 lbs
Bats: R, Throws: R
Acquired: 18th round (534th overall), 2008
Buried Treasure 2012 Top 20: #8
Cunningham missed his entire senior season in high school spring of 2008 due to a knee injury. As a result, Cunningham dropped to the 18th round of the draft, even though his talent outstripped his draft position. The Washington native surprised most people by foregoing his commitment to Arizona State. Instead, the high school shortstop signed with the Pirates for $100,000 and played that summer in the GCL.
In the GCL, Cunningham performed very well, putting up a .318/.385/.507 triple-slash in 174 plate appearances. The young infielder walked 8.0% of the time and only struck out 14.9% of the time, while adding 5 home runs, all very good numbers. Cunningham's first taste of pro ball earned him a nod as the Pirates 13th best prospect and the GCL's 20th best prospect according to Baseball America. John Sickels over at minor league ball ranked him as the 20th best prospect in the Pirates system, giving him a C grade.
Unfortunately, Cunningham missed the entire 2009 season due to a knee injury. Baseball America still ranked him as the Pirates 20th best prospect after the season. Sickels did not rank Cunningham in his top 20 Pirates prospects.
Cunningham returned to action in 2010 and the Pirates sent him to the South Atlantic League in his first full season. Playing for West Virginia, Cunningham did some things well, but also had a few of his weaknesses exposed. He posted a .258/.309/.436 line, showing good power, including 12 home runs in 533 plate appearances. At the same time, the Power's starting second base - where Cunningham was forced to move due to lack of range and athleticism - saw his strikeout rate balloon to 24.8% and his walk rate drop to 5.6%.
Despite the statistical decline, Cunningham still had a good year for a young player in his first full professional season. Scouting reports indicated a short swing geared for average and power, but a lack of pitch recognition and a penchant to chase breaking balls. Baseball America did not rank Cunningham in the Pirates top 20 prospects. John Sickels also did not rank Cunningham in his top 20 Pirates prospects.
In 2011, Cunningham moved up to the Florida State League and began the season on an absolute tear. In March and April, Cunningham posted a .265/.322/.651 line with 7 home runs in 90 plate appearances. He followed that up in May with a .313/.355/.576 line with 4 home runs in 109 plate appearances. In both months, Cunnnigham showed a poor strikeout rate and a horrendous walk rate, but that was somewhat acceptable considering the insane power the second baseman was displaying.
Cunningham tailed off in June and July somewhat, but still displayed good power, with a .191 and .136 ISO respectively. Unfortunately, Cunningham's season was cut short again, this time due to being hit by a pitch. That kept him out for the rest of the year save for a 7 rehab plate appearances in the GCL. Overall, Cunningham finished with a .258/.320/.516 line that included 15 home runs in 348 plate appearances, but a 23.6% strikeout rate and a 4.9 walk rate. Cunningham was not ranked in John Sickel's top 20 Pirates prospects. Baseball America ranked him as the Pirates 18th best prospect, stating "[h]e has the tools to be Ian Kinsler Lite if his health and strike-zone judgment don't sabotage his chances."
Cunningham entered 2012 with high hopes and momentum. He was healthy and reports were very positive about his movement and athleticism during the spring, suggesting he had a good shot to stick at second base defensively. The idea was Cunningham would maintain his massive power output, improve his strikeout rate, and walk more often. Unfortunately, only one of those three elements came true.
Cunningham posted a .217/.300/.337 line over 415 plate appearances. On the positives, Cunningham was healthier, playing 105 games, reaching triple digits for only the second time in 4 seasons. Cunningham also nearly doubled his walk rate from an alarming 4.9% to a good 8.9%. However, the Altoona infielder also only hit 6 home runs while posting a .120 ISO. He also saw his strikeout rate balloon to 26.7% from 23.6%, a very poor number considering Cunningham's lack of power.
2013 will be an important year for Cunningham. His prospect status is hanging by a thread, even though he still has good upside. Cunningham needs to find his power stroke again, cut down a bit on his strikeouts, and continue to walk at the rate he did in 2012. If he can do that while sticking at second base - even if he's below average defensively - Cunningham could be a starter in the majors with above-average upside. That'll be a stretch, but don't count Jarek out.