03/04/12 8:04 PM ET
Cunningham grateful for fresh start with Tribe
With hand injury healed, outfielder ready to compete for a job
By Jordan Bastian / MLB.com
That changed on Sunday afternoon, when Cunningham was cleared to take the field for the first time with his new ballclub. The outfielder was forced to miss two intrasquad games and the Cactus League opener, but Cleveland finally got its first look at Cunningham's potential.
Indians manager Manny Acta was thrilled to have Cunningham back in action.
"He's a guy that we need to take a look at," Acta said after the Indians' 8-6 loss to the Reds at Goodyear Ballpark. "Everybody knows he came in a trade and he's out of options. He's very athletic. He can play the corners and he can stand in center field and play there, too.
"He's an interesting guy, so it was good to see him out there."
The Indians essentially parted with two Minor League pitchers in order to acquire Cunningham from the Padres in a December trade. Cleveland sent Double-A reliever Cory Burns to San Diego in the one-for-one swap, but also lost right-hander Josh Judy to the Reds in a subsequent waiver claim while clearing room on the roster for the outfielder.
When Cunningham officially joined the Tribe, he thought his potential fit was as the team's fourth outfielder. In the wake of the injury to center fielder Grady Sizemore -- out at least two or three months after lower back surgery -- Cunningham now has a shot at cracking Cleveland's starting lineup.
"Obviously, I want that job -- for sure," said Cunningham, who was unable to suppress a smile. "But we've got a lot of good, talented guys out here. There's a lot of guys with experience. I'm sure they'll pick the one they want out there, but I'm really excited about the opportunity. It's a great opportunity. I'm going to go all out to try to win the job."
The Indians have a considerable amount of outfielders in the running this spring -- both for the starting job and the fourth-outfielder role. Beyond Cunningham, some of the top candidates appear to include Shelley Duncan, Ryan Spilborghs, Fred Lewis, Felix Pie, Ezequiel Carrera, Russ Canzler and Matt LaPorta.
Duncan and Cunningham, who started in left and right field, respectively, during Sunday's game against the Reds, are both out of options. That means that they cannot be sent to the Minor Leagues at the end of camp without first needing to clear waivers. That naturally lends to them having a leg up on the other outfield candidates.
Both Duncan and Cunningham went 1-for-3 in the loss, though Duncan came up bigger with a mammoth three-run home run, which landed on the grassy hill above the bullpen that sits behind the left-field wall. Cunningham contributed an RBI on a groundout and later added a base hit.
Cunningham was just happy to be taking the field again.
"This is a fresh start for sure," Cunningham said. "This keeps me going. It's more motivation. I'm always making a first impression. I'm meeting my new teammates. I'm trying to impress my coaches and I'm trying to impress my teammates so I can have their support as well."
The right hand injury -- Cunningham said he strained a tendon -- forced the outfielder to shut things down for a bit before rejoining the team for batting practice over the past few days. He noted that the issue was not serious, but the Indians wanted to take extra precaution this early into the preseason.
"It's 100 percent now," Cunningham said. "I wouldn't say I'm behind at all."
This spring, the 25-year-old Cunningham is trying to convince Cleveland that his showing last season was more of an aberration than foreshadowing for future production.
In 52 games with San Diego a year ago, he hit just .178 with three home runs and nine RBIs. It was a drastic drop off from his showing at Triple-A, where he hit .329 with nine homers and 63 RBIs across 87 games with Tucson last season. In 2010, Cunningham had the opposite problem. That season, he hit .288 in the Majors and just .251 in the Minors.
Cunningham is still searching for an explanation for his woes last year.
What he would not do was blame his sporadic playing time for the inconsistent results.
"San Diego, they did a good job with me," Cunningham said. "They tried to give me opportunities. They tried to get me in there whenever they could. We can't blame [my struggles] on anything. A lot of people say, 'Well, I got an at-bat this day or an at-bat that day,' but any opportunity is an opportunity."
Opportunity has come knocking on his door once again.
And after a brief setback, Cunningham can proceed with his fresh start.
"Coming to a new team is always a great thing," he said.