Cunningham and Graham Among Honored Minor Leaguers

“The Braves have named right-hander J.R. Graham their minor league pitcher of the year and outfielder Todd Cunningham their minor league player of the year.” – Atlanta Journal Constitution

As you may have heard the Braves handed out some minor league awards the other day to the best players in the system at each level. I’m wanted to give a run down of both Graham and Cunningham.

J.R. Graham

J.R. Graham was drafted by the Braves out of Santa Clara in the 4th round of the 2011 MLB Rule 4 Draft. He is a 22 year-old RHP listed at 6’0″, 185lbs. Last season he appeared in 13 games  and 50 IP in rookie ball and posted a 1.72/2.12 ERA/FIP. He started 2012 in High-A Lynchburg where he made 17 starts and overmatched through competition with a 2.63/3.19 ERA/FIP. His K’s were noticable down, but so were his BB’s. He would up with the same K/BB as he did his rookie season in 2011, 4.00. Graham was promoted to Double-A Mississippi, where he made his last nine starts for the season. He continued to pitch well there, where both his K and BB rates went up suggesting he was pitching more carefully to more experienced hitters. Overall, he posted a great season moving up two levels from 2011.

Graham preseason was listed on many prospect rankings in the top 15, ranging from 11-15th best in the system. His role has yet to be set in stone. In college he was a staple of the Santa Clara bullpen, but since then the Braves have turned him into a starter where he has thrived. Out of the bullpen his fastball has been clocked in the mid to upper 90’s, while starting it has been cut back to the low, touching mid 90’s. Some suggest his best shot of making the Majors is in the bullpen. This year could have definitely changed that projection. Here is what Ethan Purser of Capitol Avenue Club had to say about Graham in his midseason prospect report (ranked 9th),

“Graham’s sinking fastball, which sits in the low-90s and has topped out in the mid-to-upper 90s, has helped him to keep the ball on the ground, as evidenced by a groundball rate of 55.6%. A hard-biting breaking ball and developing changeup round out Graham’s repertoire. There are some questions as to his ultimate role down the road, as a small frame coupled with a bit of effort in his delivery cause many people to wonder if he will be able to stay in the rotation long-term. As for now, all signs point to the Braves keeping J.R. as a starter… Graham could move very quickly to the majors if he is placed in the bullpen thanks to his impressive fastball-breaking ball combination.”

That is pretty much where Graham stands now. I believe he will go back to Double-A for the beginning of the season but if he continues to pitch well, get a quick call up to Triple-A. Graham is yet another young pitching prospect the Braves system has been able to develop into a potential Major League starter.

Todd Cunningham

When a player like Cunningham wins Player of the Year in your system, it says more about the system than the player. Cunningham was the Braves 2nd round pick in the 2010 draft out of Jacksonville State. He is a 23 year-old prospect who is listed at 6’0″ 200 lbs. He played the entire season in Double-A Mississippi where he accumulated 519 plate appearances in 120 games. His final slash line of .309/.364/.403 along with a .359 wOBA and 119 wRC+ is good, but not the kind of numbers you’d expect from a minor league player of the year in an organization.

Cunningham can be wrapped into the high contact/low power mold with decent speed. He was able to get on base at a good clip this season, but showed little power. I understand that Jason Heyward’s and Freddie Freeman’s don’t come trotting through the system on a yearly basis, but the lack of positional prospects in the minor league system is a bit worrisome. The hitting woes howver are offset by the large amount of pitching prospects, but I’ll save that discussion for another day. Cunningham was rarely listed as one of the top 15 prospects in the system coming into the year, but a “breakout” season has him flying on many radars now. Back in June, Ben Duronio of CAC suggested that Cunningham could be a potential option for the likely hole in centerfield next season. Ben does agree there still needs to be further evaluation done on Cunningham, but it is a possibility.

I see Cunningham as more of a 4th OF type player. The question surrounding Cunning is if his bat can allow him to stick in the big leagues. He had a great 2012 season and hopefully that is something he can build on this off-season with a potential spot on the roster in 2013. I project Cunningham to start in Triple-A Gwinnett next year. It is not impossible to make the jump from Double-A to the big club (see Simmons, Andrelton), but it is not all that common either.

The Braves also handed out Player & Pitcher of the Year awards throughout the various levels. Here were the winners,

Triple-A Gwinnett: Cory Gearrin, Ernesto Mejia

Double-A Mississippi: Sean Gilmartin, Joe Leonard

High-A Lynchburg: Gus Schlosser, Nick Ahmed

Low-A Rome: Navery Moore, William Beckwith

Rookie Danville: Mauricio Cabrera, Carlos Franco

Rookie GCL: Luis Merejo, Jose Peraza

DSL: Michael Flores, Johan Camargo

Be sure to follow on Twitter: @decisions_brave


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