Work Samples

Pirates organization likes promise of Mt. Spokane's Cunningham

July 29, 2010

By David Driver
For the Spokesman-Review
Used with permission

HAGERSTOWN, Md. Jarek Cunningham and the West Virginia Power, a Class A farm team of the Pittsburgh Pirates, were forced to play a doubleheader here Monday after Sunday's game was rained out.

After getting back to their hotel around 11 p.m. Monday, Cunningham and his teammates were back at Municipal Stadium less than 12 hours later for a game that had already been scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. to attract youth and senior citizens in western Maryland.

Such is life in minor league baseball for Cunningham, 20, a second baseman who was drafted by the Pirates out of Mt. Spokane High School in the 18th round in 2008. Cunningham turned down a scholarship offer from Arizona State to play pro ball in the Pittsburgh chain.

"It is tough, but once you get used to it and how to figure out to be ready every day you get used to it," Cunningham said of the grind of minor league baseball, standing outside of the Power clubhouse less than one hour before Tuesday's game.

But after last year, when he missed the entire season after he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, Cunningham is just happy to be back playing on a regular basis. Ranked as the No. 20 prospect in the Pirates system by Baseball America, Cunningham was hitting .267 (93 for 348) in games through Tuesday with a team-high 27 doubles, four triples, eight homers, six steals and 35 RBIs. He normally bats second in the order and plays second base.

"It has been big coming off an injury and coming out here and playing every day," Cunningham said. "I have had my ups and downs. The second half has gone pretty well. I have managed it pretty well."

He has a on-base average of .323, a slugging mark of .437 and had made 13 errors at second base.

West Virginia manager Gary Green, who played in the major leagues with San Diego, Texas and Cincinnati, said he was surprised at how strongly Cunningham has bounced back from his injury.

"He has a chance to be a good hitter, when he learns to calm his swing down a little bit," Green said.

Green said Cunningham has also made the switch to second base very well. A shortstop in high school, Cunningham played third base in his first year of pro ball in 2008. This year he has played exclusively at second base and has benefited from the instruction of Steve Lombardozzi, the minor league infield coordinator for Pittsburgh who was the second baseman for the 1987 World Series champ Minnesota Twins.

"He has handled the routine plays well. He has come a lot faster than I thought he would," Green said. "I thought he would have trouble turning the double play and he hasn't. He has jumped ahead quicker than I thought he would."

"We are encouraged by the year Jarek is having, especially after missing last year with an injury," Kyle Stark, the director of player development for the Pirates, wrote in an e-mail on Tuesday. "We feel like he has improved as the season has progressed. There are a ton of learning opportunities during that first full season under the lights, and he is taking advantage of them.

"Jarek has some versatility in terms of future position," Stark added. "We wanted him to focus on one position right now as he adjusts to playing every day and to take some pressure off his bat. However, we do feel like second might end up being his best position. Jarek's performance this year has been solid, especially when you consider his age and that he missed all of last year. He has driven the ball well, which indicates the potential to be an offensive second baseman in the future."

"He is a great athlete. I can see why he is one of the top prospects in the organization," said West Virginia pitcher Jason Erickson, who went to high school near Seattle. "He is a real hard worker. He is a big stick who can handle the bat."

Cunningham, in his first pro year in 2008, hit .318 with five homers and 22 RBIs in 148 at-bats in the Gulf Coast League in Bradenton, Fla. Last year Cunningham, a right-handed hitter who is 6-1 and 185 pounds, was in Bradenton from the middle of February to August. But instead of playing in Gulf Coast League games he spent his days rehabbing from the ACL injury.

"It was tough," he said of missing the 2009 season. "I wanted to get out there after my first year of playing (in 2008)."

Even though he is nearly 3,000 miles from home, Cunningham does have some ties to the East Coast. His father, Mike, is from Brooklyn and the infielder had been to New York a few times before he signed with Pittsburgh. His parents were at Tuesday's game here and were also headed to Lakewood, N.J. for the next road series for West Virginia.

Cunningham, on Monday, had one hit in four at-bats in the first game of the doubleheader against the Hagerstown Suns, a farm team of the Washington Nationals. The starting pitcher for Hagerstown was Jordan Zimmermann, a big leaguer who was making a rehab start. In the second game Cunningham again started at second and was hitless in four at-bats.

The next stop in the Pittsburgh farm system is high Class A Bradenton in the Florida State League. The Class AA team is in Altoona (Pa.) in the Eastern League and Class AAA Indianapolis is in the International League.

Cunningham works with Power coach Edgar Varela and Gregg Ritchie, the roving hitting instructor in the Pittsburgh farm system.

"It is great when they are in town," Cunningham said of the rovers. "They have fixes for you. They have me being ready for off-speed pitches and have more gap-to-gap power, especially to right center."

And he has taken that instruction to heart, with a chance to move up the Pittsburgh minor league ladder.

"He is a guy that can drive the ball. He has a chance to be a really good hitter," Green said.