Graham, Cunningham take Braves' MiLB honors

Graham, Cunningham take Braves' MiLB honors

ATLANTA -- Right-hander J.R. Graham and center fielder Todd Cunningham were honored as the Braves' Minor League Pitcher and Player of the Year in a pregame ceremony Saturday. The Braves also honored a pitcher and player of the year for each of their seven Minor League affiliates.

Graham, ranked sixth among Braves prospects by MLB.com, had served primarily as a closer in his junior year at Santa Clara before the Braves made him their fourth-round pick in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft. This season, the Braves put Graham in the rotation at Class A Lynchburg, where he excelled. He was named to the Carolina League All-Star team and was promoted to Double-A Mississippi in late July.

Graham said the transition to the rotation was an easy one.

"Finding a routine was the biggest key to this year to get used to the starting pitching role," Graham said. "All in all, it was a lot of fun. You had a set routine, a set schedule."

Graham uses a hard two-seam fastball that he throws in the mid-90s as his primary weapon, mixing in a slider and changeup. Though Graham said his two-seamer doesn't generate enough sink to be called a sinker, it creates lots of groundball outs. His ground ball-to-fly ball ratio was 2.24 this season, helping him to a 12-2 record with a 2.80 ERA in 148 innings between the two levels.

After making a two-level jump this season, Graham said he is hopeful he can do so again next year and reach the Major Leagues.

"You want to get here as soon as you can," Graham said. "I'd love to be here next year. But if not, oh well, next year."

While Graham was a late arrival at Mississippi this season, Cunningham -- the No. 13 Braves prospect as ranked by MLB.com -- spent his whole season as their center fielder. Cunningham hit .309 and came close to winning the Southern League batting title, before getting caught in the final week by Rays prospect Omar Luna who finished with a .314 average to win the crown.

"All you really do is take your at bats the way you've been taking them all year and hope that it works out," Cunningham said. "Any time you start adding extra pressure for yourself, it just makes it that much harder. It's all about just taking your at bats the way you've been taking them all year."

Had Cunningham won the batting title, a member of the Braves' organization would have won batting titles in both Double-A and Triple-A. Left fielder Jose Constanza hit .314 to win the crown in the International League. Cunningham joked that next year he would try Constanza's Mohawk haircut to put him over the top.

While Cunningham's batting average stands out on paper, manager Fredi Gonzalez said he noticed Cunningham's fielding prowess during Spring Training.

"He can play some center field," Gonzalez said. "He got good jumps and he can go get them in the outfield for a guy who's not a burner."

All 16 Minor Leaguers honored by the Braves were presented their awards by general manager Frank Wren before Saturday's game against the Nationals. In addition to Graham and Cunningham, the group included left-hander Sean Gilmartin and shortstop Nick Ahmed, the Braves' first two picks of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft.