BY T.K. GREER Star Sports Correspondent
Chickens. That’s the biggest difference Todd Cunningham has experienced since he began playing winter ball for with the Mexican Winter League’s Naranjeros de Hermosillo in October. It’s chickens. OK. More specifically, just one chicken. “When you first come down here, it’s really a culture shock,” Cunningham says. “It’s complete chaos at times, almost like a big party every night. One night, someone let a live chicken out on the field in the middle of a game. I don’t think I’ll see a live chicken on the field in the majors.”
The majors. That’s where every minor league baseball player wants to be, and that’s what Cunningham has been gunning for since the Atlanta Braves selected him in the second round (53rd overall) in the June 2010 FirstYear Player Draft. And while the baseball party he’s experiencing in Mexico may seem far away from Turner Field, in reality, Cunningham is closer now to his big league dream than he ever has been.
The Jacksonville native is coming off his most successful professional season to date; he was in the race for the Southern League batting title until the last week of the season, and finished with a .309 average for the Mississippi Braves. He also posted a .364 on base percentage and stole 24 bases. Also encouraging? He struck out 51 times and posted 38 walks in 466 at bats. His season was so good that the Braves named him their organizational Player of the Year. In reality, 2012 was his first fully healthy season since he joined the organization.
He started the year slowly in terms of hitting for extra bases, but he finished with 23 doubles, six triples and three home runs and slugged .403 — all very good numbers for a center fielder that projects as a top-ofthe-order hitter.
“He played a solid center field and was our most consistent performer,” said Bruce Manno, vice president and assistant general manager of player development for the Braves.“His ability to play center field enhances his value as a future major leaguer, and we project him as a contributor to our major league club in the future.”
Major league timetable
Of course, no one knows when the future is going to arrive for Cunningham, but there is reason to believe it could come quickly.
Ideally, Braves brass would prefer Cunningham spend at least most of the next year at their Triple-A affiliate in Gwinnett. But this is an offseason of transition for several key spots on the Atlanta Braves’ roster — including in the outfield.
Center fielder Michael Bourn had an outstanding season for Atlanta in 2012, but he is a free agent and represented by super agent Scott Boras. Industry speculation is that Boras will command a deal in the range of five years, $75 million for Bourn, and the Braves may be unwilling to pay $15 million a year for one player who will be past the age of 35 by the time it expires.
Chipper Jones’ retirement has opened up third base, and it is expected that left fielder Martin Prado will slide into that spot, opening up a position in left field.
The Braves have been rumored to be involved in trade discussions at last week’s general managers meetings for players like Minnesota center fielder Denard Span and left fielder Josh Willingham. Atlanta also has been linked to free agents Torri Hunter, who could play left field, Angel Pagan, who would play center field, and Nick Swisher, who could play left field, right field and backup at first base.
But the reality is that nothing can pan out with those or any other deals. And the Braves have a track record of being aggressive in promoting some players from their minor league system if that is the best course of action. Look at shortstop Andrelton Simmons — whom the Braves also drafted in 2010 with Cunningham — as the most recent proof that they will go in house if needed.
“Simmons had a big year last year, and he just shot through Double-A,” Cunningham said. “That was exciting for all of us on the team because it kind of let you know that it might not be that far away.”
Manno believes Cunningham has the tools to become a significant contributor at the major league level, but it seems the Braves’ first choice would be for him to continue his development for 2013 in Triple-A.
“With continued development, he has a chance to be a regular, and with his ability to also play the corners, he could push his way onto a major league club in several roles,” Manno says.
Cunningham was one of several Braves to play in the Arizona Fall League (AFL) in 2011. The AFL is a very competitive league, as teams often send some of their top prospects to continue to refine their skills against the best the minor leagues have to offer.
Cunningham says the pitchers in the AFL pretty much have one speed — hard.
“In the AFL, it seems like all they put out there are guys throwing bullets,” Cunningham said. “There were bullpen arms pumping 95-plus miles per hour every day.”
Cunningham isn’t seeing much of that this offseason, and that’s for a reason.
As each player moves through the different levels of the minors, organizations want them to work on specific elements of their offensive game. At Single-A Rome, the Braves want their players to learn to hit fastballs. Once they reach Double-A, hitters see pitchers that have begun to learn how to throw their secondary pitches.
“So in hitter’s counts, they’re not always coming at you with fastballs in Double-A,” Cunningham explained. “They’ll throw the slider, curve or changeup, and they’ll go for the corners.”
In the Mexican League, those offspeed pitches are more prevalent. In fact, Cunningham says he rarely sees a straight pitch — maybe one in an at-bat.
“That’s why Double-A was such a great experience this year, because down here, guys that have been around for a while have five or six different pitches that they will throw at any time,” Cunningham said. “They’re moving the ball around, and they’re not coming at you with their best fastball. It’s a good development experience.”
Cunningham has had a strong showing for Hermosillo thus far, and he had one of his best weeks last week. Overall, Cunningham headed into this weekend with a .265 average, two home runs, five walks and two stolen bases in 34 at-bats. He went 5-for-7 with four runs scored, two home runs, four RBIs and two stolen bases in back-to-back games last Tuesday and Wednesday.
Cunningham is taking this opportunity to work on another element he thinks will be important as he continues his climb to the majors — he’s trying to learn how to speak Spanish. He thinks learning even a little bit of the language will be helpful in the locker room.
“Anytime you can open up communication with Latin ballplayers, that’s huge for a team,” Cunningham said. “That’s how chemistry starts to be built. It’s good to be down here and get a little bit more understanding of the culture.”
Any time there is a language barrier, there’s also an opportunity to be a part of some humorous moments.
Cunningham has had a few instances where he was trying to talk to fans after a game, and it was clear they had no idea what he was saying.
“Sometimes I’ll say something, and they will just look at me funny and I know they have no clue what I said,” he said.
And then there was the time he tried to get his order to go at McDonald’s and the server asked him why he wanted it to go packed in a suitcase.
“It’s been a steep learning curve trying to pick up on the language,” Cunningham said. “But the locals are always good with it. They have fun with us. They enjoy listening to us try and speak Spanish.”
Cunningham does not know how much longer he will play this fall. He wants to stay as long as Hermosillo wants him, but often, players with little experience can get sent home early; it’s not uncommon for major league players to come play after they take a break from the end of their regular season.
In fact, Cunningham thought he was a candidate to be sent home a couple of weeks ago when Jorge Cantu reported to Hermosillo early. Another player on the team broke his finger after Cantu’s arrival, however, and Cunningham was activated to play again.
“They can only carry so many foreign players on their roster,” Cunningham said. “And when the major league guys come back, they have to clear a spot for them.”
When Cunningham does wrap up, he’s likely done playing for the offseason. He says he’s looking forward to coming home to Jacksonville to see his parents, Brenda and David Cunningham, and taking a little time off.
He might get an opportunity to drive over to Atlanta a time or two to work with hitting coaches Greg Walker and Scott Fletcher, too. He did that in the 2011 offseason and says the work he did with them and the experience he got as a spring training invitee helped set the tone for his good year in 2012.
One thing Cunningham says he has learned during the past two years is that he is on a journey. It’s a mental, emotional and spiritual journey that is intertwined with the physical journey.
He’s learned along the way that it’s a ride he believes he’s fit to be a part of, something that takes a little time to appreciate. Cunningham says he’s learned that baseball isn’t always about who is bigger, faster and stronger. It’s more about learning how to use the skills you have consistently. Cunningham knows if he can do that more often than not, he’ll get the opportunity to play for the big-league team he grew up admiring soon enough.
“The big separator isn’t really one tool, it’s more putting it together day in and day out,” he said. “It’s about learning how to stay afloat as opposed to bottoming out.
“As soon as I walked onto the field with these guys and saw it was still baseball, that actually made it somewhat easier to process that I do belong here. ... Some of the philosophies may be different, but it’s still the sport you’ve been playing all of your life. That’s a comforting feeling.”
This article originally appeared in the Anniston Star.