June 4, 2012 at 12:24 pm by Ben Duronio under Atlanta Braves
The Braves are going to have a good amount of money to spend next year and will likely have at least two spots to fill. The rough estimate the last time I checked will be about 40 million, but with the uncertainty of the Braves staff and any potential injury or trades that occur, money could be spent on in a number of different places depending on what happens over the next few months.
One interesting player, who I value highly as a prospect, is Todd Cunningham. He is currently a 22-year-old centerfielder for Double-A Mississippi who switch hits and was called the top defensive outfielder in the Braves system by Baseball America after last season. To go along with the top tier defense, Cunningham has a line of .315/.362/.383. His current wRC+ is 119. For reference, in Michael Bourn’s 215 games and 975 plate appearances at double-A he hit .270/.349/.364. Bourn displayed better patience, which is a very valuable asset at that age, but the two are not entirely dissimilar in terms of production at the plate. Bourn’s wRC+ in double-A was 116.
The point about Cunningham’s patience has to be noted. He is walking in just 5.6% of his plate appearances while striking out in 12.4%. That is not a good sign of things to come in the future. Bourn had a 10% walk rate and 18.6% strikeout rate in his final season in Double-A, the furthest I can find those numbers. To go along with Cunningham’s discipline issues, he has a .364 BABIP, which will most likely decline at least a bit. He is a contact type hitter, so he could display a high BABIP, but .364 seems a bit excessive. Over the remainder of the year, in order to push the Braves hand he really needs to walk a bit more and try and do so without seeing a big spike in his strikeout rate. His defense will likely already play in the majors, but he needs to show that he can get on base at a consistent rate in a number of ways before the Braves would hand him a job at the end of winter. One odd way Cunningham has consistently shown is in his ability to get hit by pitches. It’s a skill that shouldn’t be simply overlooked, as he has been hit 34 times in 914 plate appearances. That rate would come down heavily in the majors, but his willingness to get hit by pitches shows that he knows his job — get on base.
Along with walking more, Cunningham could try and swipe a few more bases, but that’s likely not all his decision at the time. He has ran just nine times, and has been safe seven of those times. That’s a pretty big improvement over last year’s 14-6 SB/CS ratio last year. He is a strict contact and speed guy, so there will not me much power coming from him likely ever. This year he has just nine extra base hits, two triples and seven doubles. Last year across three levels he hit six triples and 16 doubles.
There still needs to be a lot of evaluation done on Cunningham, but so far he has done exactly what he needed to do this year in his first taste of the upper minors. There are certain areas he needs to improve, but he seems like the type of player that can be effective for the Braves in the future. If the Braves choose not to sign Bourn and do not believe Cunningham is ready to play every day, a stopgap could make a good deal of sense. If they do lock up Bourn or another impending free agent, Cunningham would then become either a trade chip or be deemed a fourth outfield type. There is an outside chance the Braves could use him like Brett Gardner as a center fielder in left field. I think one day Cunningham is a major leaguer and I certainly feel like will one day deserve a chance to start somewhere, and at least the Braves have a backup plan if they miss out on a free agent this winter.