From independent ball to bigs: Cunniff living dream
MIAMI -- When Brandon Cunniff began his seven-plus-hour drive from Orlando to the Atlanta area late Sunday morning, he was under the assumption he would begin this season with Triple-A Gwinnett. But approximately 30 minutes after arriving at his destination, the right-handed reliever learned he was just a few hours away from returning to Florida to gain his first experience as a Major Leaguer.
After trading Craig Kimbrel to the Padres on Sunday, the Braves opted to fill the vacated bullpen spot with Cunniff, a 26-year-old right-hander who has made quite an impression since joining Atlanta's farm system as a relatively obscure pitcher who was in the midst of his third consecutive season of pitching in an independent league.
Cunniff continued to impress the Braves as he worked a scoreless inning while making his Major League debut during Tuesday's 12-2 win over the Marlins. He entered with a five-run lead in the sixth and immediately walked Giancarlo Stanton. But Cunniff breathed a sigh of relief when he retired each of the next three batters he faced -- Michael Morse, Martin Prado and Marcell Ozuna.
"It's crazy how things can change so quickly," Cunniff said.
Coincidently, Cunniff completed this successful debut against the Marlins, the same organization that drafted Cunniff in the 27th round of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft and then released him just 18 appearances into his professional career.
Cunniff began each of the next three seasons in independent leagues, and in the process, he gained approximately 20 pounds of muscle. The additional strength helped him gain velocity on a fastball that is now consistently clocked near the mid 90s.
After signing with the Braves midway through the 2013 season, Cunniff produced a 1.99 ERA in 20 appearances for Class A Advanced Lynchburg. He made nine more appearances for Lynchburg last year before further impressing in the process of producing a 2.05 ERA over 33 appearances for Double-A Mississippi.
With the combined stats he produced for Lynchburg and Mississippi last year, Cunniff ranked third among all Minor Leaguers with a 1.58 ERA and a .187 opponents batting average. A strong showing in the Arizona Fall League earned him a spot on Atlanta's roster and the chance to impress enough during Spring Training to gain this unexpected spot in the Braves' bullpen.
"He's got a strong arm, and we've liked what we've seen," manager Fredi Gonzalez said of Cunniff, who had allowed just a run in seven Grapefruit League innings before surrendering a three-run homer to Astros outfielder Colby Rasmus last week.
With his limited experience, Cunniff realizes there is no guarantee that he will stay at the Major League level throughout this season. But he has already exceeded the expectations that were placed upon him while he was toiling at the independent level.
"I was going to give it up [after the 2013] season, and then the Braves gave me this shot," Cunniff said. "It all worked out."