E.A. Sports Today

Cunningham ready for Braves’ camp

Off-season deals give local outfielder perhaps best chance of making big-league club



By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

Todd Cunningham always gets excited about going to spring training, but this year there is more reason than ever.

With all the moves the Atlanta Braves have made this off-season, many directly related to his position as they acquired pitching, the Jacksonville outfielder goes to Florida next month with what appears to be the best chance of his career to make the big-league club.

There are no guarantees, of course, but there’s no disputing the opportunity. The Braves traded corner outfielders Jason Heyward and Justin Upton before Christmas and just last week moved Evan Gattis to Houston. It looked like Gattis was headed to left field at least on a part-time basis with the acquisition of veteran A.J. Pierzynski as the other catcher.

“Obviously, it’s a very exciting spring training because they’ve made a lot of moves,” Cunningham said the other day. “Hopefully my preparation and everything in years past kind of leads up and culminates in this spring training; that would be ideal.

“But even if it doesn’t work out in spring training and I don’t break camp with them … there are so many opportunities throughout the year and you never know when moves are going to happen. It’s definitely exciting for me from the perspective that they’ve made so many moves to open spots in the outfield, for sure.”

The Braves still have seven outfielders on their 40-man – Cunningham, Zoilo Almonte, Jose Constanza, Nick Markakis, Joey Terdoslovich, Cuban signee Dian Toscano and B.J. Upton – for four or five spots. Constanza and free agent Markakis are the oldest at 31. Cunningham, who’ll be 26 on opening day, is one of the youngest.

That’s still a lot of players chasing just a few big-league spots, but unlike recent years they aren’t already locked up by big-contract guys.

“Now there’s an opportunity and that’s all you can ask for,” Cunningham said. “There’s no pressure on me — because there’s no one else — that I have to be the guy, but it’s a pretty exciting time. I want to be the guy. So going into spring training with the mindset of not doing anything more than what you’ve ever done, but go out for a job; it’s not just learn from better a guy, it’s going out and trying to win a spot.”

Cunningham, a second-round draft pick in 2010, has been up with the big-league club before. He got called up several times in 2013 and appeared in eight games with two hits and eight at-bats, but never made a start. He played 120 games at Triple-A Gwinnett last year but never got a late-season call-up.

The competition promises to be keen while the Braves try to decide how they’re going to handle the outfield. There is talk of platooning in left. The starter may not even be on the roster yet.

At least they haven’t moved Cunningham yet. The best indication he’s still with the club was being asked to join the Braves Caravan, the annual winter publicity tour through the Southeast that starts Tuesday in Middle Georgia (Birmingham Jan. 26).

The Braves even had him go to the Dominican for winter ball to get him ready to best compete for spot, but the trip turned out to be “not my best baseball experience.” He got sick shortly after he arrived and spent the whole time trying to recover on and off the field.

What really works in Cunningham’s favor is his versatility. He has experience at all three outfield spots, playing center all last year in Triple-A and the corners in big-league camp. He even dabbled at second base last spring training, but he doesn’t foresee any infield in his future. But at least he has that going for him.

“Anywhere there’s a hole there’s an opportunity for me,” he said. “At the end of the day regardless of what all the blogs and stuff are saying about being a rebuilding year, the Braves are going to want to win. Their goal is to put together the best lineup, so however you can shuffle those lineups around to put together the best complete lineup the better, which is good for players like me who have some flexibility to catch onto a couple different spots. The more playing time I can allow myself the better for my career.”

Todd Cunningham delivers a hit while playing for the Triple-A Gwinnett Braves. (Special photos)

Todd Cunningham delivers a hit while playing for the Triple-A Gwinnett Braves. (Special photos).

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