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.