Drew Cumberland through the eyes of the wise

When a quiet person speaks, it’s wise to listen.

Shaun Cumberland, a most taciturn man, chose to tell me about his younger brother during the summer of 2007. I listened.

Shaun was an outfielder, part of the powerful and talented Montgomery Biscuits, who began 2007 with Evan Longoria anchoring third base and ended the season as Southern League champions for a second consecutive year. He was one of the lesser-known talents, ranked outside of Tampa Bay’s upper echelon of prospects by Baseball America, the majority of whom have since gone on to greater heights in the major leagues. Still, there was no getting past that Shaun Cumberland possessed intriguing talent. On July 28, the Reds requested that he be included in their trade to acquire former All-Star Jorge Cantu.

In 2007, I was the media relations intern and number two broadcaster in Montgomery. I rarely interacted with the players, whether due to shyness, nervousness or a ceding of authority to the lead voice, Jim Tocco, who was the Southern League’s reigning Broadcaster of the Year. But I sat down on the day in question, early in the spring, while Shaun was still a member of the Biscuits, and I was all ears as he proudly spoke about his younger brother. 

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“Drew’s much better than me,” my memory paraphrases Shaun saying. “He’s playing both baseball and football right now, but watch out for him.”

Remembering that conversation, I paid close attention to the June draft. It was not long before my focus was rewarded: Andrew Cumberland was selected 46th overall by the San Diego Padres, outdoing his brother’s 10th round selection from four years earlier.

The younger Cumberland was listed at five feet, 10 inches, four inches shorter than Shaun, but his abilities caused scouts to rave. Honored as All-State in Florida for his performance as both a running back and a defensive back, he was noted for his brilliant speed and quick bat.

Drew Cumberland signed for $661,500 and justified it, batting .320/.397/.367 in 25 games in his 2007 professional debut. It was only 25 games because, writes Matt Eddy of Baseball America, profiling the Pads’ number 16 prospect entering 2008, “Cumberland hurt his hamstring late in the high school season, then missed time after signing when he dislocated a finger while trying to catch a pop-up.”

He moved up to become BA’s fifteenth-best prospect entering the 2009 season after rapping out a .286/.348/.350 clip in a shortened 53-game campaign with Low-A Fort Wayne. From Matt Eddy’s ’09 profile: “Injuries have cost Cumberland valuable developmental time… A pulled ribcage muscle sidelined him for a couple of weeks last May, and then he jammed the index finger on his throwing hand while turning a double play at the end of June, knocking him out for most of the rest of the year.”

In 2009, Drew Cumberland returned to Fort Wayne. That same season, I joined the Lansing Lugnuts. As it happened, Lansing and Fort Wayne began the season against one another, allowing me the opportunity to seek out Drew in the visiting clubhouse. There I told him what his brother had said to me two seasons earlier. He smiled widely and thanked me, and then we shook hands and wished one another well.

That season, Drew Cumberland established himself as a top-of-the-order igniter on one of the minor league’s greatest powerhouses in recent memory. He put together a line of .293/.386/.410 with 19 steals, 40 walks and 36 strikeouts – in an injury-shortened 77 games. The powerful TinCaps went 94-46 in 2009, winning seven more games in the postseason to clinch a memorable Midwest League title. Drew Cumberland watched from the dugout.

From Matt Eddy’s 2010 BA prospect profile: “[A]n errant pitch struck the back of his hand, bruising ligaments, tendons and bones and knocking him out of the playoffs. Cumberland tried to return for instructional league but pain and swelling put the kibosh on that.”

Still, Baseball America continued to move Drew Cumberland up the Padres’ prospect radar, advancing him to San Diego’s 11th-best prospect at the start of 2010. Eddy finished his synopsis and analysis with the prediction, “A 2010 season free of serious injury could return Cumberland to his normal trajectory, including his first glimpse of Double-A.”

The young infielder broke camp with the Lake Elsinore Storm. On Opening Day, he gave a hint of what was to come, going 3-for-4 with a home run, two RBIs and two stolen bases. He finished April with stats of .357/.410/.589, warmed up to.381/.421/.584 in May, and put together a stretch of seven consecutive multi-hit games from May 27 through June 3, climaxing with a four-hit showing against Modesto.

By the time the Padres promoted Cumberland to Double-A San Antonio, as Matt Eddy had predicted, he ranked fourth in the minors with a .365 average, boasted 91 base hits and 63 runs scored in 60 games, and had been invited to play in the Futures Game during the All-Star Break. This, then, was why all the scouts had been waiting for Drew Cumberland.

On July 15 at Midland, Texas, in his 15th game with the San Antonio Missions, his season ended.

“[H]e slid into a railing,” wrote Eddy, “and sustained a deep laceration in his left knee, ending his year. He still has yet to play in more than 77 games in a season while dealing with oblique, finger and hand injuries…. All of Cumberland’s injuries have resulted from all-out play, and the Padres certainly don’t want to discourage that behavior. They regard him as a potential regular at the keystone, but for now he’ll head back to Double-A as a shortstop.” Baseball America rated him as the ninth-best prospect in the Padres organization.

Drew Cumberland did not head back to Double-A in 2011.

At Padres spring training in March, he began suffering intense migraines and dizziness. Vertigo, maybe, or perhaps the symptoms were the result of concussions suffered during his sterling high school football career. The news would later emerge that he had dealt with such debilitating symptoms during his playing career, even in the midst of minor league games. It is a wonder, in retrospect, that he never suffered worse injury.

So it was in the spring of 2011 when Drew Cumberland stepped back from baseball, took off his uniform, and, while his teammates traveled north to start the season, began meeting with various specialists around the nation.

In June, he received the answer from the Senta Clinic in San Diego: He had bilateral vestibulopathy, a neurological condition caused by damage to both of his inner-ears, and worsened by his history of concussions.

“After his diagnosis,” wrote Matthew Poullot of Hardball Talk, “Cumberland tried resuming workouts in late June only to have to shut it down after a few days because his symptoms returned. As a result, he’s now pursuing a coach career at the tender age of 22.” Drew Cumberland, very quietly, announced his retirement from playing ball.

In early August of last season, my Lansing Lugnuts came to Fort Wayne to play a four-game series. The voice of the TinCaps, Dan Watson, took me aside. “Our first base coach is not on our roster,” he said. “Drew Cumberland’s here. He’s wearing number three.”

And that might well have been the end of the story, except for the startling, optimistic news that broke on December 2nd. As reported by MLB.com’s Corey Brock, Drew was ready to return.

“Cumberland,” wrote Brock, “who played in the 2010 Futures Game and was regarded as one of the top prospects in the organization, will be able to play 2012 after tests revealed that the rare neurological condition that sidelined him can be controlled.”

A number of measured but optimistic quotes from Drew Cumberland followed, as did an explanation that “Cumberland will now have a daily routine that includes eye exercises, taking up to 900 milligrams of Omega-3 fatty acid (to help keep fluid off the brain) and taking brain games online to help improve brain health and its performance.”

John Sickels cautiously included him in The Baseball Prospect Book 2012, opining, “A healthy Cumberland is an interesting prospect, a guy who can hit for average and provide disruption on the bases. Of course, we have no idea if his skills will be anything like what they were before, so we can’t rate him any higher than a Grade C right now. He’s a good human interest story though, and a lot of people are rooting for him.”

In the end, sadly, that perpetual theme of Drew Cumberland’s baseball career — promise cut short — held true once more.

On his 15th day of attending the Padres’ spring training minicamp for prospects, all optimism, measured or otherwise, came to an end.

“San Diego Minor League infielder Drew Cumberland,” wrote Corey Brock this past Monday, “who missed all of the 2011 season because of a rare neurological condition and was attempting a comeback this spring, has informed the organization he’s walking away from the game.”

The bilateral vestibulopathy, which he and his doctors were treating so diligently, had returned. The Padres offered him all the time he required to recover, but he refused. This time, Drew Cumberland’s retirement was for good. His playing career, which held such promise, is now over.

Knowing him, I doubt that this is the end of the story, either.

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