High Class A Report
Cunningham belongs in White Sox' plans
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.--The White Sox already knew about outfielder Aaron Cunningham's tools, but they're also learning that his work ethic and makeup are nearly as impressive. And he's learning that he belongs.
CALIFORNIA DREAMIN'• It doesn't get much hotter around the minor leagues than the way Lancaster outfielder Bubba Bell started 2007. Through 53 at-bats, the 24-year-old was hitting .396/.467/.755 with five homers and 21 RBIs. "It seems like he's averaging two RBIs a game," Red Sox farm director Mike Hazen said. "What do you say? He's been pretty locked in, that's for sure."
A 39th-round pick in 2005, Bell drove in 28 runs in 208 at-bats at low Class A Greenville last season.
• A return to the Cal League had not been kind to Rangers righthander Edinson Volquez. During his first turn through the league in 2004--when his first name was still spelled 'Edison'--Volquez went 4-1, 2.95 in 40 innings at Bakersfield. This year, Volquez was 0-1, 15.75 and had allowed 14 earned runs on 10 hits in eight innings of work.
Volquez reached the majors in 2005, going 0-4, 14.21 in 13 innings with the Rangers. The next season he went 6-6, 3.21 with Triple-A Oklahoma before another sub-par performance with the Rangers (1-1, 7.29 with 15 strikeouts and 17 walks in 33 innings).
CAROLINA ON MY MIND• Royals third baseman Mario Lisson ranked on the back end of the Royals' top 30 prospects after the 2004 and 2005 seasons, but he fell off the list after last season following a second straight year in the low Class A Midwest League. The upside was that Lisson got in a full, healthy season, playing 130 games at Burlington and hitting .263/.368/.421 with 13 homers in 463 at-bats.
Signed in 2002 out of Venezuela, Lisson is still just 22, and he was off to a solid start at Wilmington this season, batting .267/.333/.533 through eight games. An American League scout had plenty good to say about him. "He moves really well for a big kid," the scout said. "He just seems to get very good reads. I've seen him make plays going back on balls that would have caused a lot of guys fits over there, and I've seen him charge balls and make that throw on the run.
"Good lateral movement, as well, with plus arm strength. Offensively, he puts the ball in play–solid, disciplined hitter. He hit balls hard all over the place the last few days."
POSTCARDS FROM FLORIDA• Marlins 2004 sixth-round pick Brad McCann saw his numbers dip to .231/.288/.360 at high Class A Jupiter last season, so he's repeating the level this year.
McCann was repeating it well. McCann had two homers (he hit 12 all of last season) and was batting .412/.421/.765 in 17 at-bats.
"He came (to Jupiter) and it's just not as favorable as low Class A Greensboro is to hit in," Marlins hitting coordinator John Mallee said. "He's a gap-to-gap guy in his approach. When he's going good, he's driving the ball to right-center and reacting in. Well here, he'd be driving balls to right-center and they'd be getting caught--they wouldn't be going anywhere because it's just not a favorable park to hit in. And not to make an excuse, but as a result of that, I think he changed his approach, thinking he had to try to pull the ball if he wanted to hit for some power.
"When he did that, he started chasing balls out of the zone because he had to cheat a little bit. And that took away his strength of staying closed, staying on the ball and reacting."
--Compiled by Chris Kline
Cunningham collected two hits in five at-bats in big league camp as a 19-year-old this spring, however the teenager doesn't remember which pitcher either one of those base hits came against.
"I couldn't even tell you," he said. "It was just an eye-opening experience to get up there for a couple games and have guys like Jim Thome treat you like a human being.
"It makes you realize that you belong. Maybe you're not ready to be there yet, but they treated you like you belong. It puts your mind at ease to go out there and keep working hard to get better."
A sixth-round pick out of Everett (Wash.) Community College in 2005, Cunningham got off to a fast start at high Class A Winston-Salem. Through 31 at-bats, he was hitting .419/.486/.581.
Not bad for a guy who just turned 20.
"He's very professional in the way he goes about his business," Warthogs manager Tim Blackwell said. "He's very matter of fact just in the way he goes about it. He's a gamer and doesn't quit.
"I see him being better than just a guy who can hold his own in this league. He's going to put up some numbers and we're going to keep throwing him out there."Nearly Unnoticed
Cunningham was undrafted coming out of high school in Washington, and he wasn't well known when he went to junior college. But scouts came out in droves to see his teammates, righthanders Zach Simons and J.T. Zink, and Cunningham took advantage of all the newfound attention.
"In high school I was just a small guy and I really wasn't that good," he said. "I improved by putting all my attention toward baseball. Those two guys brought the scouts who just happened to see me."
Simons went in the second round to the Rockies in the '05 draft, while Zink was an eighth-round pick of the Red Sox.
"I've said thank you to both those guys numerous times," Cunningham said. "If it wasn't for them I would have never got noticed. Being on the same team with those guys was definitely huge."
But it wasn't just playing on the same team as two high-profile arms that earned Cunningham a $140,000 signing bonus as the White Sox' sixth-rounder. It was his bat, and his hitting ability showed up in a big way.
The unheralded freshman hit .480 with 10 homers for the Trojans, earning MVP honors and nearly winning the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges triple crown.
"He's got great work ethic with a good set of tools," White Sox farm director Alan Regier said. "Personally, I'm going to be disappointed if he's not a big leaguer. He can hit, he can run and he can throw. His tools aren't sevens or eights (on the 2-8 scouting scale), but he can be fives across the board.
"He's got a chance to be a (well above-average) hitter, and the bat is going to have to be his difference maker. And he's got the intelligence and the above-average bat speed to do it."Long Season
Cunningham's first full season was a long one. Playing for low Class A Kannapolis was rough on everyone, as the 2006 Intimidators were one of the worst teams in the minor leagues, finishing with a 42-94 record. Still, Cunningham was far and away the best hitter on the club, hitting .305/.386/.496 with 11 homers and 26 doubles.
"I might have had good numbers, but I'd have preferred a few more wins if I hit .250 in exchange for them," he said. "It's a lot more fun when you win. It made it rough the whole season to lose that many games, and it was a team effort--we all lost. It wasn't just one person, it was everybody.
"It was really a learning experience. It kind of just came down to the grind of doing what you had to do--do your job and hope everything else goes well around you."
Cunningham has a line-drive stroke and shows power potential. Even with success in the first half of last season (he batted .355 in May), he lowered his hands slightly and felt more comfortable.
"I didn't even mean to move them down, it just happened that way and it felt natural," he said. "I felt way more consistent--more line drives, getting more contact and I started striking out less. I'm just trying to continue that this year, just staying up the middle and away and trying to put the ball in play with my two-strike approach. I'm really just trying to mature in the game."
As the second-youngest player on the Warthogs roster (righthander Jason Rice is three weeks younger), Cunningham will benefit from the experience of the older players in the clubhouse. The eight-team Carolina League, traditionally a pitcher's league where players are forced to make quick adjustments, presents an entirely different set of challenges.
"It's a challenge for hitters and pitchers, so I think it evens itself out," Cunningham said. "They have to find your loophole, but you can also find theirs, so it's a fair game. And the advantage I think is to us because we can figure out what they do. You get to feel comfortable seeing the same guys all the time.
"It really comes down to being confident. I know I'm one of the younger guys in the league, but I think being around the older players will only help me mature as a person and a player. I think having them around will only help me get better."