Aaron on the side of caution
To members of the angry mob who reached out to me this past week, the answer is, “No, Aaron Cunningham is not the big right-handed bat the Indians have been searching for this winter.” And, yes, I picked up on your collective sarcasm.
Simply put, Cunningham fills a need (one I go into briefly in the last Indians Inbox of 2011). Like last offseason, Cleveland was in need of some right-handed help off the bench, especially in the outfield, where all three starters hit from the left side.
In that regard, Cunningham might be the answer. He’ll at least be given a shot during Spring Training to convince the Tribe’s decision makers that he can potentially fill such a role during the 2012 season.
One way to look at the situation is that Cunningham — acquired from San Diego for Double-A Akron closer Cory Burns — is this year’s Austin Kearns. Stay with me, folks. Put down the torches and clubs. What I mean is, Kearns was added to the fold to be a fourth outfielder and an option against left-handed pitching.
That Kearns struggled mightily and was ultimately released does not mean the theory behind his signing wasn’t sound. And, in Cunningham, Cleveland has a younger (25), more affordable (under contract for the league minimum through 2013) player with more upside.
There is, however, a catch.
Cunningham is out of options. What this means is that he would have to be exposed to waivers before the Indians could outright him and send assign him to a Minor League affiliate. In the business of baseball, this would essentially give Cunningham a leg up on the competition for a bench spot this spring, if he turns in a comparable showing to his Minor League contracted competitors.
Last season, the Indians ran into some issues due to the fact that Kearns in the fold on a guaranteed deal. Even as he tanked, there was a reluctance to part ways with him out of fear of exposing the team’s thin depth. That explains why someone like Shelley Duncan, who had options last year, was shuttled back and forth between the Majors and Minors so often. That’s the business side of things.
This year, like Cunningham, Duncan is out of options, too. So, as things stand at the moment, it’s a fair assumption that both players project to be on the Opening Day roster. One difference this year is that the first-base situation, and the expectation that Grady Sizemore will be healthy enough to be in the lineup and in center from the season’s start, throws a bit of a wrinkle into things.
A year ago, Duncan and Kearns both made the team out of camp because Sizemore needed time to get healthy, and he didn’t join the club until April 17. So Kearns was in left and Duncan on the bench. This year, barring a setback during the spring, Michael Brantley will be in left, Sizemore in center and Shin-Soo Choo in right field.
On the surface, that makes it seem like Duncan and Cunningham could be competing against one another for a spot as a fourth outfielder. Fact is, unless the Indians add a first baseman (am I the only one thinking this might not happen?) before Spring Training, Duncan will be competing with Matt LaPorta for that job.
Under that scenario, Cleveland is seemingly left with Cunningham as the leading candidate for the reserve outfielder role. I am here to tell you that this is not necessarily a bad thing. To which you’ll ask, “We are talking about the same guy that put up a .178/.257/.367 slash line last year, right?”
Yeah, that’s the guy.
With Triple-A Tucson (sure, it’s fair to point out this is in the hitter-happy Pacific Coast League), Cunningham hit .329 with nine homers, 34 doubles and 63 RBIs in 87 games last year. Not only that, he boasted a .395 (!) average against left-handed pitching in the Minor Leagues last year.
For his career, Cunningham has hit .256 with a .741 OPS against lefties (Duncan had a .679 OPS vs. LHP last season) versus hitting .217 with a .620 OPS against right-handers. Only two years ago, Cunningham hit .288/.331/417 in 53 games for the Padres, and that included a .364 average and a 1.022 OPS against left-handers.
The Indians love to use three-year periods as a good way to gauge performance. Over the past three seasons — including his abysmal showing in the Majors last year — Cunningham has hit .299 with an .887 OPS against left-handers (combined between Majors and Minors).
These all reasons for not hating this move. In fact, I’m a fan of the addition because, if Cunningham is used right, he can be a valuable option of the bench. Now, if injuries decimate Cleveland’s roster again and Cunningham is getting full-time at-bats as a left fielder, that’s when it becomes an issue.
I understand where the frustration within the fan base is coming from, though. Indians fans want to see the Tribe go out and land an impact bat and the team sends out news that it has potentially filled a bench spot. Thing is, those incremental moves are often the ones that help strengthen a team from top to bottom.
Do the Indians still need a right-handed power bat? Sure. I’m not going to argue with anyone about that. At this point in the offseason, though, given the options remaining on the open market, it almost seems as if standing pat (for now) is best. I’m not a proponent in making a move for the sake of making a move.
The Indians got off to an incredible start last year and that was without a healthy Sizemore. Who’s to say they can’t repeat that early run in 2012? If they do, then pursuing an impact bat before the July 31 Trade Deadline might be the way to go. This is just me talking outloud here. The Indians are still searching for an upgrade this winter. I just wouldn’t expect it to come via free agency.