Jarek Cunningham Off to a Hot Start

Cunningham currently leads the organization in home runs.

The 2008 draft was the first draft for Neal Huntington and company, and thus, the first time we really saw the Pittsburgh Pirates take an aggressive approach to over-slot signings.  Attention is obviously paid to Pedro Alvarez, the first round pick who received a $6 M signing bonus as part of a major league deal.  More attention goes to sixth round pick Robbie Grossman, who signed for $1 M, and 20th round pick Quinton Miller, who signed for $900 K.  Both prep prospects broke commitments to major organizations to sign with the Pirates.

One over-slot signing that tends to fall under the radar is Jarek Cunningham, the 18th round pick who signed for $100,000.  Cunningham was drafted as a shortstop, and broke a commitment to Arizona State, where he likely would have been stuck behind current Pirates prospect, and former Arizona State shortstop, Drew Maggi.  Cunningham was rated as a much better prospect than an 18th round pick, but fell to the Pirates due to concerns over a knee injury he had, plus signability reasons due to his commitment to Arizona State.

Those knee problems went away, as Cunningham’s ligament re-attached itself, which is very rare.  However, Cunningham re-injured the same knee in Spring Training 2009, causing him to miss the entire 2009 season, after putting up a strong .318/.385/.507 line in 148 at-bats in the GCL in 2008.  Cunningham returned in 2010 to make his full season debut with West Virginia, although the results weren’t anything to write home about.

In 488 at-bats in 2010 with the Power, Cunningham hit for a .258./.309/.436 line, with 12 homers.  He struggled with plate patience, striking out 27% of the time.  He also moved over to second base, taking some pressure off his knee, and remained there as Elevys Gonzalez and Benji Gonzalez each emerged to take playing time at the position.

Cunningham didn’t rank on a lot of top prospect lists coming in to the 2011 season.  He didn’t rate at all in Baseball America’s top 30, or Baseball Prospectus’ top 20.  However, he rated as the 15th best prospect in the system in the Pirates Prospects 2011 Prospect Guide, a ranking which is starting to look good based off his early 2011 results.

We saw Cunningham a lot last year, and one thing that stuck out was his power.  We mentioned in the Prospect Guide that he has good gap power, with the ability to add homers as he fills out.  He struggled with off-speed pitches, leading to his strikeout numbers.  The big question is whether he can play shortstop, especially with the need at the major league level.  He’s got a strong arm, although his range didn’t look good last year, even at second base.  I talked to Kyle Stark about the subject during Spring Training.

“Jarek’s value is probably going to be tied a little more to his bat,” Kyle Stark said. “I think that Jarek has really taken to second base.  Part of the thing last year was the knee, part of it was to not put too much pressure on him so he could go out and hit a little bit too, and I think that played out.  We’ll probably look to keep him primarily there, give him some reps on the other side of the bag, but primarily keep him there.”

So far that’s been the case, with Cunningham playing all 24 of his games at second base.  As for the offense, he didn’t get off to the best start this season.  He displayed some power early in the year, hitting four homers in his first ten games, but after 14 games he had just a .204 average and a .333 slugging percentage.  Then, on April 22nd, Cunningham went 3-for-5, with all three hits going for doubles, and went on a hitting tear from that point forward.

Since his first 14 games, Cunningham has hit for a .422 average and a .911 slugging percentage, including that 3-for-5 performance, spanning 45 at-bats.  He has four homers in those 11 games, and 12 of his 19 hits have gone for extra bases.  As for his plate patience issues, Jarek has been much better this year, striking out in just 20% of his at-bats, including just 13% during his current hot streak.

We’ve seen middle infielders have success at high-A, only to struggle in the upper levels.  Brian Friday did it in 2008, with a .287/.365/.387 line in 341 at-bats in high-A.  Since then, he has yet to hit above a .265 average in AA or AAA, and has yet to see an OPS above .750.  Chase d’Arnaud had a better season in 2009, with a .295/.402/.481 line in 210 at-bats in high-A.  He struggled in AA last year with a .247/.331/.377 line, and has struggled in the early part of the 2011 season, with a .235/.330/.408 line in 98 at-bats.

Cunningham has more power than either player, making him a nice threat as a middle infielder, and making it more likely that he could be successful in the higher levels, as he won’t have to have a .300 average to be a strong prospect, as long as he’s hitting for good power.  Because of the big jump to AA, I’d hesitate to pencil Cunningham in to any future lineups in Pittsburgh.  That said, he’s had an impressive start to the 2011 season, currently leads the organization in home runs, and if his current stretch continues, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in Altoona by the end of the year, possibly getting a shot at the majors in 2012, assuming he can make the successful jump to the upper levels.

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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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