Whenever prognosticators “look to the future” of what a MLB teams lineup will look like in 1-2 years they look for the top prospects throughout the farm system and inter mix them with present MLB outfielders. In the case of the Padres those top prospects are AA outfielders Jaff Decker and Blake Tekotte. Both players have outstanding hitting and fielding abilities, despite reports by ill informed journalists who say the contrary. However, standing in between Decker/Tekotte and the big leagues are AAA outfielders Aaron Cunningham, Cedric Hunter, and Luis Durango. While none of these hitters are slouches themselves, with so much hype on Decker/Tekotte and the likes of Maybin, Venable, Dino, and Ludwick in SD, the question becomes will any of our AAA outfielders ever get a chance to prove they can succeed in San Diego?
Of course of the above names, the name that most people recognize is Aaron (Richie) Cunningham. Cunningham hit .288/.331/.417 while playing excellent D in San Diego. Mark Grant and Dick Enberg were recently talking about a diving catch that Cunningham made last year in LF, as one of the best defensive plays last year. At only 25 (just turned 25 in April), Cunningham is entering his prime and ready to do damage in San Diego. The problem with Cunningham, however, is that he doesn’t do anything special offensively outside of hit for a pretty high average. He doesn’t hit for much power(8 last year, 12 the year before), doesn’t steal a lot of bases (0 this year, 3 last year, 11 in 09’), and his BB/K ratio leaves something to be desired. Cunningham has hit for a bit more power this year, and has improved his BB% to 13.5% (up from 8.0% last year), and lowered his K% 17.4% (23.8% last year). While Cunningham will never hit for power to make him a legit corner OF, considering Venable is hitting .236, and Ludwick is hitting .208, a player with excellent defense who can hit close to .300 in the majors might deserve at least the same playing time he got last year in San Diego.
Cedric Hunter was at one time the #1 prospect in the Padres system. The idea was excellent CF, great approach at the plate, and would develop power. However, the power has never really developed, and when a singles hitter struggles he drops down the rankings fast. After leading all of minor league baseball in hits as a 20 year old in Lake Elsinore just 3 years ago Hunter is now trying to prove he is worth another shot at the majors. Watching Hunter in the OF reminded me a lot of watching Andrew Jones just float to the ball. However, unlike Jones, Hunter’s offense leaves a lot to be desired. While he has speed he has never translated it into SB. The 17 SB he stole in 52 G as an 18 year old in Arizona (AZL MVP) remains the most in his career despite spending the last 5 years in full season ball. Hunter does have 6 SB so far this year in 30 G. Hunter has never had much power but is also 23 in AAA. While some think he still has a chance to develop power, those people are getting few and far between. The greatest thing about Hunter is that he does not strike out. Hunter struck out just 8.1% last year, and is at 7.9% this year. Unfortunately, he also doesn’t walk much. The value in Hunter really depends on him being able to hit over .300, with his great K numbers, and enough power/SB to keep pitchers on their toes. Either way, at least now, he doesn’t profile or deserve much in the majors. Another year or two of improving numbers in AAA, and he might (again only 23), but by that time his MLB callup will probably be with another organization.
No one has more speed on the basepaths than Luis Durango. Even better is that Durango is an excellent bunter and keeps the ball on the ground and an astounding rate. Durango has stolen 40+ bases each of the last 2 years including 7 of 8 in San Diego. However, it became a joke last year when Luis Durango would get his first extra base hit. He had 7 xbh in over 400 AB last year, and hasn’t hit a HR since May of 2008 in Fort Wayne. Speaking of power it was also reported that Durango had an OF arm that made Juan Pierre throw like Willie Mays. Durango has been working on building muscle each of the last 2 off seasons and reports are that he is stronger and able to at least keep runners honest in the OF and fielders not playing him like an 8 year old girl in over the line. Durango really needed a strong 2011 to show that he belongs at least as a 4th OF in the majors. So far it hasn’t happened L In 35 G Durango is hitting a career low of .257/.342/.305 with his worst SB ratio (4 in 8 attempts) in his career. Despite his best efforts Durango will never evolve into an MLB starter, however he does have tremendous value in his speed. With Durango’s speed, his ability to get down a bunt, and steal a base, he would be an ideal 4th/5th OF on an AL team. Think Boston with Doc Roberts. However, San Diego is not an AL team and has plenty of 4th/5th OF types already with the above 2, Denorfria, and Eric Patterson. If Durango is going to make the majors and stick there he will need to increase his SB% which has always been one of his crutches. Even more unfortunate is that Durango is already being challenged for playing time with Hunter, Clark, and Cunningham in the OF and will find it even harder when Baxter comes back. Combine that with the likelihood of seeing at least 1 OF from AA being called up at the ASB and Durango’s time is dwindling.
All 3 players have the “potential” to be a solid contributor at the MLB level. However, all 3 also have the drawbacks that make them overshadowed by the players in SD and those in AA. With all 3 players on the 40 man roster, they might be crossing their fingers for an injury to get a chance one last time in San Diego to prove that they belong. Of course of the 3 which one will be chosen? Hunter made the opening day roster with Patterson hurt, but that was partially attributed to Bud Black saying they wanted to let Cunningham start everyday in RF. Cunningham has put up the best numbers in AAA but none have been spectacular. Will any of them get the call before someone is DFA to make room for a AA OF or Anthony Rizzo?