The Frontier League is proud to have 32 former players play in the Major League’s and today there are currently two alumni on a MLB roster: Jose Martinez (Cardinals) and Tanner Roark (Nationals).
Out of the 32, four of them have been apart of the Rascals organization and the most recent Rascal to play in a Major League game is Brandon Cunniff, who is currently pitching for the New Orleans Baby Cakes, triple-A affiliate for the Miami Marlins. He is off to a solid start this year earning one win and two saves in eleven appearances with a 2.70 era. He has held the opponent scoreless in eight of his appearances and has eleven strikeouts in 13.1 innings of action.
The 28-year-old reliever is currently playing at the highest level of any former Rascal and is in the hunt to get back to the Major Leagues to appear in his 55th big league game.
Cunniff played with the Rascals from 2011-12 and was a force to be reckoned with holding an era of 1.54 (2011) and 1.83 (2012) out of the bullpen. One year later, pitching for the rival Southern Illinois Miners, he tossed 12 consecutive scoreless innings to begin the year and caught the attention of the Atlanta Braves who signed him to a contract.
“I didn’t really know what to expect coming into independent ball, but the plan was to just come in and throw the ball well, hopefully win. I was fortunate enough to go the championship in 2011 with the Rascals and I had a great time on the field with the guys and off the field with my host family ,” Cunniff said in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon.
Cunniff was dominant the next couple of years for the Braves minor league affiliates and officially got to live out the dream of pitching in the MLB when he was named to the opening day roster in 2015. The former Rascal officially made his big league debut on April 7th, 2015, and played the majority of the season with the Braves recording a pair of wins and finishing with a 4.63 ERA in 39 appearances. He was able to hold opponents to a .213 batting average and set the Braves rookie record for the most games pitched at the start of a MLB career without allowing a hit (5).
“It’s been pretty crazy, going into to 2013 I told myself that it was going to be my last year if I don’t get signed and then the Braves came along and gave me that opportunity. I was fortunate enough to make it up to the big leagues with them and it’s been a lot of fun,” Cunniff said.
This past year, Cunniff once again appeared in battles at America’s pastimes highest level and held a 2-0 record with a 4.24 ERA over 15 outings. The reliever now continues his baseball journey with the Marlins organization and is attempting to continue tallying up quality numbers to get the call every current minor leaguer is hoping for: “Pack your bags, you’re going to the show.” The Miami Marlins just called up their first right-handed reliever of the year earlier this month so keep your eyes out on Cunniff as he looks to be the next guy out of the bullpen for the fish.
Also in the Miami Marlins organization is 2015 Frontier League MVP and former Rascal slugger Taylor Ard. The Washington native continues to slug home runs just like he did in a Rascals uniform and currently ranks third on the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp (AA) in home runs (4) and second in RBI (14). Ard is moving at a rapid rate through Don Mattingly’s organization and as Ard and Rascals fans can hope, he will be playing alongside slugger Giancarlo Stanton and former Rascal Brandon Cunniff in due time.
The Marlins are the third MLB club that has given Ard a chance and he was able to get this opportunity due to his heroic 2015 season in a River City Rascals uniform. Ard first began playing in O’fallon during the 2014 campaign and proved right away the reason he was drafted three separate times, including the 7th round in 2012 by the Seattle Mariners.
In his inaugural year with the Rascals, Ard batted .338 with nine home runs and was signed by the Arizona Diamondbacks for the rest of the season during All-Star weekend. Fast forward a year later, Ard was like his own home run derby leading the Frontier League with 30 home runs, six away from the league record and driving in 83 runs. On top of all that he also pounded out 29 doubles, stole 13 bases, hit for an impressive .313 average and stayed healthy enough to be just one of three Rascals over the past five years to play in all 96 games. Two of the most memorable games in a Rascals uniform for Ard include his three home run game on July 10, 2015 against Gateway and his walk-off home run on August 28th, 2015 at CarShield Field against the Lake Erie Crushers.
The third former Rascal currently playing in affiliated ball is right-hander Ben Bracewell, Midland Rockhounds (AA) for the Oakland Athletics. The 26-year-old originally signed with manager Steve Brook in 2014 after a dominant career at Mississippi State and it took all of four starts in professional baseball for Bracewell to be signed to a MLB organization. The A’s officially signed the righty on July 24th and has proven to be a great addition to the green and gold minor league system having gone 16-7 with a 3.09 ERA after 92 games between rookie ball, advanced-A and double-A. Currently with Midland, he had his best outing of the year on April 14th tossing four innings of scoreless baseball and allowing just one hit with three strikeouts.
Cunniff, Ard and Bracewell have given the current Rascals plenty of hope and for the 24 guys that are currently on the Rascals roster, the likelihood of at least one guy getting signed is relatively high with affiliated teams taking Josh Silver this past year, Ard in 2015 and a tremendous number of seven guys from the 2014 roster including Bracewell and current Rascal catcher/hitting coach Josh Ludy.
“I think the Frontier League is a good path as far as the independent leagues go, the game of baseball is getting younger and younger so I think major league clubs are going to draw more guys out of there,” Cunniff said. “Just take the advantage of the opportunity you have, you never know what can happen because it’s a crazy game. Just keep working hard that’s all you can do.”
Former Rascals alumni in Major League Baseball: Josh Kinney (2001), Justin Christian (2003-04( Joe Thatcher (2004-05), Brandon Cunniff (2011-12)
-In 2006, Josh Kinney, made his Major League Debut with the St. Louis Cardinals and was a key part of the St. Louis Cardinals run to the World Series Championship. Kinney played five seasons in the MLB with the Cardinals, White Sox and Mariners finishing with a career record of 1-3 and a 4.73 ERA.
-In 2007, reliever Joe Thatcher made his MLB debut with the San Diego Padres and went on to play seven seasons with the team. He finished out his career with the Diamondbacks, Angels and Astros. In nine years, the southpaw was 11-16 with a 3.38 ERA
-In 2008, Justin Christian was the third Rascal to appear in a Major League game playing for the New York Yankees. Christian went on to play parts of two more seasons with the San Francisco Giants and in 76 career games hit .203.
-Brandon Cunniff (see above)