To cap off the end of the 2009 season, I’m going to be counting down my list of the top 50 prospects in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ system. I’ll be counting down one prospect per day, with an extensive recap on each player, until I reach number one. Check out the previous installments:
19. Jarek Cunningham, SS
Coming in to the season, Cunningham was rated as one of the top middle infield prospects in the Pirates’ system, listed as the shortstop in the projected opening day 2012 lineup in Baseball America’s pre-season prospect rankings
Cunningham was likely to start the season in West Virginia, but tore his ACL on March 8th, and missed the entire season. Cunningham rehabbed for a few weeks, then had surgery which put him out of action for six months.
Information: The 2009 season was not the first time Cunningham had an issue with his ACL. He missed his senior year in high school in 2008 with a knee injury. Doctors thought he tore his ACL, but when he went in for surgery they found the ligament had reattached itself. Because of the knee injury and a commitment to Arizona State, the Pirates were able to draft Cunningham in the 18th round of the 2008 draft, and signed him away for $100,000.
Cunningham had an impressive debut in the Gulf Coast League in 2008. In 148 at-bats he hit for a .318/.385/.507 line with five homers. That helped him get ranked as the 13th best prospect in the Baseball America 2009 rankings, and the second best middle infield prospect in the system, behind only Shelby Ford.
Cunningham is 6′ 1″, 185 pounds. He hits with gap power, and could hit for more homers if he develops his size and strength. On defense he has good range and an above-average arm, giving him the chance to be a plus defender. He played third base with the Pirates last year the majority of the time, mostly to reduce the strain on his knee. Going forward, that versatility will be valuable, as several other middle infield options have emerged while Cunningham has been out.
Cunningham turns 20 in December, so the injury won’t set his career back too much. The 2009 season saw some middle infield options emerge, like Chase d’Arnaud and Jordy Mercer, however, Cunningham still has a chance at a bright future. He might not make it up by 2012 now, but he should be in the next wave of prospects to potentially hit Pittsburgh, following the group that helped Lynchburg win a title last year.
2010 Expectations: Cunningham should pick up where he left off, starting the 2010 season with West Virginia. He could be in Bradenton in high-A by the end of the season, similar to the path we saw from d’Arnaud last year.
Optimistic Projection: It’s hard to project someone who has just 148 at-bats in the Gulf Coast League, at least in the sense of what type of player he will become. Cunningham has the potential to be a solid defender at short or third base, and in his small sample size has hit for a good average, shown plate discipline, and gap power. Combine all of that and you’ve got the makings of an All-Star shortstop.
Conservative Projection: It’s hard to draw a comparison to a player, so I’ll just say that Cunningham has the ability to be a reliable starter in the majors, either at third base or shortstop.
Check back tomorrow for prospect number 18…