Many college students spend their summer jobs blowing whistles at the local pool or making ice cream at Ye Olde Ice Cream Shoppe. wilson cunningham he’s spending his time throwing 90-mph fastballs to professional hitters.
The tall, lanky 19-year-old is a left-handed pitcher in the Chicago Cubs farm system and a sophomore at the University of Chicago, with a “substantial” portion of his tuition paid for by the club. The arrangement requires him to work out at his expense during school months (his professional status means he’s not allowed to play college baseball) and report to the Arizona Cubs’ training center when school is out.
“That’s like the best of both worlds,” Cunningham said in a recent interview. “It’s something I could only dream of.”
The deal allows him to earn a degree at one of the best schools in the country while also getting the training that could one day propel him to the big leagues. Not an unprecedented deal: Other players, including 2000s All-Star shawn greenhe was able to attend college after signing with a team, but the Cubs don’t recall offering one like it.
“You’re not talking about a very large investment,” he said. “And they obviously feel like there’s a chance of a payoff at the end.”
Cunningham grew up in Southern California and played baseball as soon as he was old enough to hold a bat. But after a childhood filled with Little League and travel ball, he gave up the sport by the time he reached his mid-teens, partly due to injuries, partly because he was growing faster than a dandelion in a Miracle trough. -Gro (now 6-foot-8).
He said the two-year hiatus rekindled his love of the game and took the stress off his arm. She joined the JSerra Catholic High School team, a baseball powerhouse that routinely attracts the attention of Division I college coaches and professional talent evaluators.
Cunningham’s ability and physical stature caught the attention of the Cubs during his senior year. As scout Evan Kauffman and vice president of scouting Dan Kantrovitz stood behind the plate one day watching him pitch, an idea formed.
“I said, ‘Where is Wilson hospitalized?’ and (Kauffman) said, ‘The University of Chicago,’” Kantrovitz recalled. “And so a lightbulb went off in my head. I was like, ‘Well, that’s interesting. I wonder if there’s some kind of synergy that we can make it work, knowing that it’s going to be in our own backyard.”
The Baseball Almanac lists only nine maroons who made it to the big leagues, the last in 1945, but Cunningham, who describes himself as “kind of a brainiac,” was hesitant to drop out of school to pursue a professional career. So when the Cubs offered to let him do both, they sold him.
“That was extremely exciting,” he said. “It was definitely a deal I couldn’t pass up.”
the puppies I take Cunningham in the 20th and final round of the 2021 draft. Few knew much about him – a website classified him the 505th best left-handed pitching prospect in the country, and another called him “a total surprise of a selection”.
Cunningham’s family was almost equally shocked.
“I think it took us by surprise initially, to be honest with you,” said his father, Jay. “Every kid wants to be a big league pitcher, but this all came together in a matter of weeks.”
Cunningham received a $10,000 signing bonus along with a partial tuition payment. (Kantrovitz did not reveal the amount, but the total price tag is about $60,000.) He spent about a month at the Cubs’ facility in Arizona before traveling to Chicago.
There, he settled into a schedule that included morning practice, noon classes and afternoon pitches, often with members of the varsity baseball team, before studying overnight.
The Cubs designed their workouts, he said, and he communicated weekly with the team’s strength and pitching coaches. Eating has also been a big part of the plan: Cunningham said that in the last year he has added 20 pounds to his frame.
He spent school breaks at the Arizona Cubs’ training complex and returned there this summer to play rookie baseball. So far, he has pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings with three strikeouts.
“We couldn’t be more excited about the progress he’s already made,” Kantrovitz said. “We will continue to be very patient with him and make sure as we go into the next year that we do what is best for him and his development. Hopefully, we’ll continue to see the gains that we’ve seen to this point because it’s exciting.”
Cunningham is still a long way from the Show, but Callis said there is reason for hope. Every year, some players drafted in the 20th round make it to the major leagues (White Sox pitcher Matt Foster is one of them) and Cunningham, with his towering height and ever-increasing speed, has been praised for his “projectability,” scout parlance for potential.
Cunningham is studying computational and applied mathematics at the University of Chicago, displaying an analytical mindset that Callis says could be a good match for the Cubs and their vaunted tone labwhich uses high-speed cameras and other gadgets to capture the fine mechanics of a pitch.
Top news picks from Chicago Tribune editors, delivered to your inbox every afternoon.
“There is more scientific process in baseball now than there was 20 years ago,” Callis said. “You would think a really smart player would do well in that environment.”
Kantrovitz said Cunningham’s brainpower and discipline have made the arrangement work.
“You can imagine him working on paper, but until you get a chance to sit down and talk with Wilson, you will (not) understand how he thinks, how impressive he is as a kid, how driven and smart he is. “he said. “That just goes hand in hand with what he’s studying in school: how can we synthesize and incorporate the information that we’re throwing at him because it’s an unconventional setup.”
Cunningham said the two worlds he inhabits have a lot in common, each filled with unique and ambitious people. That has made it easy to come and go.
“It hasn’t been a big shock, I guess,” he said. “Just less talk about Aristotle and more about Jacob deGrom.”