South Kitsap graduate hoping for another big-league experience

Aaron Cunningham, a 2004 South Kitsap graduate who played at Tacoma this week as a member of the Triple-A Reno Aces, now is in his 10th season of professional baseball. He said he intends to play as long as possible — even if he does not return to the major leagues. - Dannie Oliveaux/Staff Photo
Aaron Cunningham, a 2004 South Kitsap graduate who played at Tacoma this week as a member of the Triple-A Reno Aces, now is in his 10th season of professional baseball. He said he intends to play as long as possible — even if he does not return to the major leagues.
— image credit: Dannie Oliveaux/Staff Photo

TACOMA — Jason Hammel could be competing for an all-star berth. Willie Bloomquist might be playing for a contender.

But another alumnus of South Kitsap’s tradition-rich baseball program is just hoping he can rejoin their ranks.

Aaron Cunningham, a 2004 South graduate, returned to the area this week as a member of the Triple-A Reno Aces when they played at Tacoma. Cunningham, 28, once was part of a trade that included all-star pitcher Dan Haren and standout outfielder Carlos Gonzalez. He even has played parts of five major-league seasons.

But Cunningham has not played in the major leagues since 2012 with Cleveland. And, for the first time during his career, he was released March 12 by the Chicago Cubs. Cunningham signed with Arizona — he also played in the Diamondbacks’ organization in 2007 — and was assigned to Triple-A, a level he has played at each season since 2008.

Not that all seasons — or experiences — are created equal.

“It’s kind of a different role than what I’ve been in,” Cunningham said. “I’ve had to play myself into more playing time here.”

While Cunningham remains just a level below the major leagues, his quest to return perhaps never has been more challenging. That is because Cunningham is not on Arizona’s 40-man roster. For the Diamondbacks to call Cunningham up, they would need to clear a space on their roster, which not only is occupied by players in the major leagues but often also includes top prospects. A team then risks losing that player on waivers if they hope to send him back to the minors, as well.

“Politics plays a big role in baseball,” Cunningham said. “You don’t want to think about stuff because you get caught up in it.”

Cunningham said his contract also does not include an opt-out provision, which veteran free agents sometimes demand when they sign a minor-league deal. That clause can enable a player to void their contract if another major-league team seeks their services. Cunningham said he had that provision last year when he was in Texas’ organization, but did not feel he was in position to obtain another opt-out clause this season.

Instead, Cunningham’s best big-league prospects might relate to how many players Arizona, which is last in the National League West, trades at the July 31 deadline. That might not sound as compelling as the potential story lines of Hammel and Bloomquist with the Chicago Cubs and Seattle, respectively. But Cunningham, who had a .219 batting average and .628 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) in the major leagues, said he remains hopeful he will receive another opportunity.

The right-handed Cunningham, who has played for seven organizations, had a .251 average and .689 OPS through Tuesday with Reno. Both are far worse than Cunningham’s career average (.280) and OPS (.807) in Triple-A. But Cunningham has a strong average (.348) and OPS (.884) this season against left-handed pitchers.

“He’s had some huge at-bats coming off the bench and that’s very difficult to do,” Reno manager Phil Nevin said. “Those are valuable guys in the big leagues. You’re usually pinch-hitting late in close games against pretty good arms out of the bullpen and he’s had some pretty good at-bats. You keep doing that and people notice those things.”

Cunningham has been noticed before. He has been traded four times and played for seven organizations. Cunningham said most of his teammates that he came up with as a sixth-round pick by the Chicago White Sox in 2005 have retired from playing. But he is reticent to leave the sport.

“This is the game I know,” Cunningham said. “This is the game I love. I will play until they take the jersey away.”

Nevin still sees potential in his pupil. Cunningham was ranked as Baseball America’s No. 55 prospect entering the 2009 season.

Nevin was even more decorated.

He was the No. 1 selection in the 1992 amateur draft by Houston, but was traded three times before he emerged as a star third baseman in 1999 with San Diego. Sometimes, Nevin said, it comes down to opportunity.

“He’s been there, he understands what it’s like and he’s not going to be overwhelmed if given the opportunity when he goes back,” said Nevin, referring to Cunningham. “He definitely could be an asset for somebody. The opportunities have to arise for those things.”

Cunningham said he is willing to explore playing overseas if it extends his career. He realizes his best opportunity might come with staying in America, though.

“Obviously, I would love to go over there,” Cunningham said, referring to playing in Japan. “The money is good over there, you get to experience a different culture and they treat Americans with respect of a superstar.

“But a lot of times they want guys that hit 20 home runs a year. I’m not really a 20-home-run-a-year guy.”

Not that he has any complaints.

“I’m happy,” Cunningham said. “I’m playing baseball.”

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