Braves Prospect Used Indy Ball to Earn His Second Chance at Majors

At the age of 21, pitcher Brandon Cunniff was drafted by the (then) Florida Marlins in the 27th round of the 2010 MLB draft.  He appeared in 17 games for their Gulf Coast League rookie affiliate and 1 game for their short season New York Penn League affiliate in 2010.  In 34.2 total innings, he accumulated 36 strikeouts and 5 saves en route to a respectable 2.34 ERA in his first taste of professional baseball.  However, Cunniff was released before the 2011 season began.

Not wanting to give up, Cunniff turned to independent ball to keep his baseball dreams alive.

In 2011, he signed with the River City Rascals of the Frontier League. He became a dominant closer for the Rascals during the season. In 44 appearances (46.2 IP), he had 53 strikeouts with 9 saves and a 1.54 ERA all while finishing with a 4-0 record.

In 2012, he returned to his role in the Rascals bullpen. After appearing in 28 games, striking out 55 and earning 4 saves, he was traded to the Southern Illinois Miners. Here he finished out the regular season with another nine appearances and 4 saves, striking out 10 hitters in 10 innings.

Cunniff was a great late season addition to the Southern Illinois bullpen as they made their playoff push.  In the post season, he appeared in five games, recorded 4 saves and struck out 9 in only  5.2 innings of work.  His great work closing out games helped propel the Miners to the 2012 Frontier League Championship.

He began the 2013 season back in Southern Illinois.  After 12 innings in as many appearances, Cunniff recorded 8 saves and 23 strikeouts.  He was second in the league in saves when he finally got the news… He was getting a second chance in affiliated ball. After spending two and a half seasons improving his pitching (including increasing his velocity), dominating hitters, and proving himself in the Frontier League, his hard work and perseverance finally paid off.  Cunniff ended his time in the Frontier League with impressive stats;  Overall, he went 7-0 with a 1.57 ERA and 25 saves in 93 appearances.

The Atlanta Braves purchased Cunniff’s contract on June 21, 2013 and sent him to the team’s High-A affiliate, the Lynchburg Hillcats.  He appeared in 20 games for the Hillcats, striking out 39 in 31.2 innings on his way to a 1.99 ERA to finish the season.

Cunniff started the 2014 season in Lynchburg, but quickly pitched himself to a promotion.  In 9 appearances, he pitched 15.2 scoreless innings only allowing 5 total hits while striking out 21.  He then brought his 0.00 ERA to the Double A Mississippi Braves, where he continued his impressive scoreless streak into his first two appearances with the MBraves. The higher level of competition didn’t phase Cunniff.  He finished the 2014 Double A season with a 3-0 record and 52.2 innings pitched in 33 appearances.  He also recorded 50 strikeouts and had a 2.05 ERA.

His great performance recently earned him an invite to play among the top prospects in baseball in the Arizona Fall League. Currently with the Peoria Javelinas, he has pitched 6.2 innings in 5 appearances with 6 strikeouts.

His rise through the Braves organization is impressive and an interesting story to follow, but what’s more interesting is how a player like Cunniff was stuck on Indy Ball Island for so long. Players of his caliber are not often hidden in independent ball for over two years.  The Braves got a steal of a deal when they found this hard throwing pitcher in Southern Illinois.

The Miners have a motto: “Miner For Life.” You’ll always be a Miner even after you’re gone from the team. No matter where you go or what you do, you will always be a part of something special in Southern Illinois. For Cunniff, I think he’ll always fondly remember the team and the Frontier League championship that helped him earn his second chance.

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Is the Third Time a Charm for Pitcher Al Yevoli?

Former Washington Wild Things pitcher, Al Yevoli, will be getting his third shot at affiliated ball in the spring.  After a stellar 2014 season in the Wild Things’ bullpen, Yevoli was recently signed by the Arizona Diamondbacks where he will be reunited with former Wild Things teammates Stewart Ijames and Troy Marks.

It hasn’t always been an easy road for Yevoli, but even with thoughts of giving it all up, he persevered and pushed through.

After three tough years at High Point University, where just finding the strike zone was difficult at times, Yevoli was trying to find a reason to quit. He thought about it, but realized that he couldn’t just give up the game that he loved.  He wasn’t finished yet, and all he needed was a fresh start to prove it.  After finishing his junior year with a 14.14 ERA, he transferred to Tennessee Wesleyan.  He had the best year of his college career posting a 2.57 ERA in 21 innings pitched while helping his team win the 2012 NAIA World Series.

This performance had him gaining notice with independent teams.  The Washington Wild Things of the Frontier League sent him a contract after his college career was complete. After driving 14 hours to Washington, Yevoli realized that the team was really just asking him to come try out.  He threw an impressive bullpen session and was offered a spot on the team in June.  Being signed to a professional team helped him turn it all around.  He worked hard and made the most of his chances. Yevoli had rededicated himself to the game and became nearly unhittable down the stretch.  The rookie with his 94 mph fastball became an essential part of the Wild Things bullpen by striking out 34 batters in 34 and a third innings.  He was named #5 on Baseball America’s 2012 list of top independent ball prospects.

After his great year, Yevoli was signed by the Atlanta Braves in the offseason.  During spring training, he did well pitching with the Class A team, but his fastball dropped a few mph from midseason form.  After the Braves signed new pitchers before the end of spring training, Yevoli became the odd man out and was released during the last round of cuts.

Determined to continue playing and earn another chance, Yevoli headed back to Washington for the 2013 season.  After a rough first month, he settled down and began pitching lights out.  His ERA, as high as 33.00 at one point, was slowly climbing back down.  By mid-July, he had lowered it to 6.65.  The Chicago Cubs noticed his turn around and officially purchased his contract on July 24th.

Assigned to the single A Kane County Cougars, Yevoli pitched well and finished out the season with a 3.15 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 20 innings.  He spent 2014’s spring training with the Cubs organization pitching with the High A team while dressing for three major league games.  Despite throwing 5 scoreless innings and recording 6 strikeouts and only 2 walks, he didn’t make it through spring training cuts.

Once again, Yevoli headed north to return to Washington knowing that he still had unfinished business to take care of in baseball.  He felt that he still had what it takes to make it in affiliated ball, and he was out to prove it.  He spent the entire 2014 season with the Wild Things, and thrived in the 8th inning set up role.  In 48 appearances, a Wild Things record for single season relief appearances, he compiled a 4-5 record and a 2.92 ERA.  In July, Yevoli was named a Frontier League All-Star.  He pitched one inning in the All-Star game striking out the side.

Earlier this month, the Arizona Diamondbacks purchased Yevoli’s contract.  He was also recently listed as the fifth best prospect signed out of independent ball this year according to Baseball America.  They site the fact that the DBacks have worked with him to get more direct to the plate as well as the addition of a cutter which pairs well with his 94-95 mph fast ball. He has what it takes to play at the higher levels of baseball.

A hard throwing southpaw is a hot commodity in baseball. They aren’t often let go, and Yevoli is trying to prove why he deserves to stay around this time.  Hopefully, the third time really is the charm for Al Yevoli.

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Writing and sharing stories about Independent Baseball.

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