Southern notes: Cunningham busts out

M-Braves outfielder finding success in familiar surroundings

By Guy Curtright / Special to | June 26, 2012 6:12 AM ET

A strained right elbow interrupted Todd Cunningham's 2011 season, and he missed time this April with a sore knee. He's healthy now, though, and hitting like the Atlanta Braves had hoped when they made him a second-round pick in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft.

The Mississippi center fielder had a .337 average in May and put together a 16-game June hitting streak to take over the Southern League batting lead. That earned the Alabama native a starting spot in the Southern League All-Star Game and reaffirmed his status as the Braves' No. 14 prospect.

"I've just been feeling really comfortable at the plate," said Cunningham, who finished the first half with a .325 average. "I really wouldn't call it a hot streak. It was more a couple of streaks within a streak. I guess you could liken it to the way I felt in summer ball before my last year of college."

The switch-hitter won the Cape Cod League batting title with a .378 average and his stock jumped dramatically. After he hit .359 as a junior at Jacksonville State, the Braves grabbed him with the 53rd overall pick.

"I grew up in Braves Country, so it was special when Atlanta took me," Cunningham said. "I got over for games when I could and watched all the time on TV. My whole family followed the Braves, so it was really cool."

Despite living barely 100 miles away, Cunningham hadn't been on the Braves' radar coming out of high school in northeast Alabama, and colleges weren't exactly rushing in with scholarship offers, either.

"I wasn't highly recruited at all," said Cunningham, who decided to stay close to home and play at Jacksonville State.

It couldn't have worked out better. He was Ohio Valley Conference freshman of the year and then won the batting title in the Texas Collegiate League the following summer before hitting .339 as a sophomore at Jacksonville State.

An infielder as well as outfielder in college, the Braves took Cunningham as a third baseman. But he soon found himself in center field.

"They either didn't like the way I took ground balls or really liked the way I looked in the outfield," Cunningham said.

Matt Lipka, the Braves' first selection in 2010, was also later moved to center field and is playing at Class A Advanced Lynchburg -- giving Atlanta depth at the position with Michael Bourn nearing possible free agency.

"I enjoy center field. It's a lot of fun," Cunningham said. "I hope I can stay there. I think it fits me."

The 23-year-old has hit all around the Mississippi batting order, but he is projected as a potential leadoff hitter. To do that, though, he needs to draw more walks. He had just 12 in his first 61 games.

"I get up there to hit," said Cunningham, who has struck out 28 times while batting .323 with 14 extra-base hits and 11 stolen bases through Monday. "I'm not trying to finesse my way to be a certain kind of hitter. That puts pressure on me. I want the pressure to be on the pitcher."

Cunningham played in the Arizona Fall League and got an invitation to Spring Training with the Braves, showing that he's highly regarded by the organization despite hitting just .257 at Lynchburg during an injury-marred 2011 season.

Now Cunningham is living up to expectations at the plate, and he is getting to do it in a league where family and friends can easily see him play.

"Huntsville and Birmingham are close, and it's easy to get to Chattanooga and Montgomery," he said. "That makes it really nice."

Of course, the trip everyone wants to make is to Turner Field in Atlanta. Cunningham may be headed that way in a few years.

"I'm not looking ahead," he said. "You just have to take things game by game."

In brief

New start for Mills: Beau Mills, Cleveland's first-round pick in the 2007 Draft, homered in his first two games for Pensacola and was 5-for-8 with seven RBIs after being acquired by Cincinnati from the Indians. The first baseman hit .197 with seven homers in 39 games for Triple-A Columbus. Mills, 25, was the 13th overall pick in 2007 and is the son of Houston manager Brad Mills.

Back on track: Joey Terdoslavich hit just .180 in 53 games for Triple-A Gwinnett and committed 22 errors at third base. But he returned to first base when sent to Mississippi and got back on track at the plate. Atlanta's No. 6 prospect hit .364 with nine doubles, a homer and 16 RBIs in his first 17 games with Mississippi. Terdoslavich set a Carolina League record with 52 doubles for Class A Advanced Lynchburg last season.

Smokies on rebound: An 11-2 finish got Tennessee to 35-35 for the first half, and the Smokies appear to be poised for a run at the top of the North Division in the second half. Tennessee, which finished first in both halves last year, got a boost with the return of shortstop Junior Lake, who missed April with a bad back. The Chicago Cubs' No. 9 prospect started the second half with a four-hit game and was hitting .315.

Guy Curtright is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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