Name: Nick Hundley
DOB: September 8, 1983
George Kottaras – once considered the heir apparent – is no longer in the system, traded to Boston for David Wells.
That has Hundley giddy about his standing within the Padres' system – at the top of the catching heap. It doesn't mean the work stops by any means and there are certainly challengers, but Hundley's combination of power, hitting, and defense has promise – provided the package continues.
Hundley split last season between Low-A Fort Wayne and High-A Lake Elsinore, playing in 104 games.
Not a stranger to hard work, Hundley would routinely put in the extra work with his hitting coaches to iron out any deficiencies in his bat, shortening his swing and working on balance.
Things were cloudy at the start, as the backstop struggled out of the gate from a hitting standpoint, batting .234 over the first two months of the season with zero homers. But things couldn't have looked brighter in June. In 16 games during the month he hit .410 with 13 extra base hits, including seven homers, and 21 RBIs. He belted a homer in five straight games during one stretch, tallying six over that span.
It wasn't long before he was promoted to Lake Elsinore. While the power numbers took a dip, Hundley ended his High-A season hitting .278 over 47 contests. He worked with hitting coach Tom Tornicasa and made some subtle adjustments to his swing in August and started to come around near the end of the season.
"They moved him because he got hotter than – that was fun to watch," 2006 Fort Wayne hitting coach Max Venable said. "He homered in, I think, six games in a row. It was incredible.
"Here is another kid, not to single out anyone differently, but him along with Mike Sansoe, had his routine and was determined – his determination was unbelievable. He did his early work and then did his post work after batting practice he would come grab me and say, ‘Max, sorry.' ‘Sorry for what?' He would come disturb me while I was doing something to come and do soft toss and I would say, ‘Are you kidding? I am in heaven. This is what it is all about.' He kept with his routine and like I said with Sansoe it really paid off. He really worked his tail off to get where he was at and got promoted. He was playing well there. This guy has some pop in his bat. With his catching, he is probably the number one catcher in the organization."
His biggest challenge at the plate has been swinging at pitches early in the count, including pitcher's pitches, instead of allowing the at bat to progress naturally.
He has a slight loop in his swing and generally has a good eye but will chase the changeup down and away. He is also a dead-pull hitter that will send grounders to shortstop and third base when he tries to pull tougher pitches. The Padres would like to see him stay back a tad more to drive balls into the gaps and give him that extra split-second to see the break of the ball.
"He swings the bat real well," 2006 Lake Elsinore hitting coach Tom Tornicasa said. "He is another guy we made a few little adjustments on and he has taken it from there. You just keep an eye on him and keep doing what you are doing, stick with the plan of what we are trying to do and he will get better and better. He started to get a feel for what is going on."
Defensively, Hundley is improving. He has an excellent arm from behind the dish and good footwork to setup the throw. He nailed 30-of-73 baserunners attempting to steal, 41 percent, against him in Fort Wayne. That number dipped to 31 percent, 18-for-59, in Lake Elsinore.
He is a vocal leader that communicates his needs and wants to the pitching staff. As a studious observer of the game, he has a clear picture of what he would like to see and works with the pitchers to get on the same wavelength as them to avoid the shake-off that often ruins a pitcher's timing.
If he sees a particular pitch working, he is not averse to making it known and it often leads to better results.
"In Eugene, Nick Hundley would talk before we actually would go out and pitch," right-hander Grant Varnell recalled. "Say we were pitching a team that likes to go the other way with the ball, we'd talk about how we were going to bust them in or what type pitches we'll use and just certain philosophies before the game on how to succeed or get better. He's pretty good with getting with me on the same page and calling the pitches that I like in certain situations."
"Unbelievable," Padres' roving catching instructor Carlos Hernandez said. "I see the reports everyday and everyday it is something good talking about him. Defensively - and offensively and he is swinging the bat well."
Hundley receives the ball well, setting up a good target and framing it to get a pitch on the outside edge of the four quadrants of the zone called for a strike.
The placement of his setup behind the plate is a work in progress. He will sit too far away from the plate on occasion, hurting the pitcher's chance of getting a strike called when the ball is dipping out of the zone after it crosses the plate. His ability to recognize that as he moves forward will be a benefit to him and his staff.
One area that he has struggled in over the last two seasons is digging the ball out of the dirt. While he is not afraid to call the pitch that could pound into the ground, Hundley was charged with 18 over two leagues this year and committed 14 errors.
Ironically, he was seen as a plus defender coming out of college. His arm was solid in Fort Wayne, tossing out 41 percent of the runners attempting to steal on him, 30-for-73. In Lake Elsinore that number slid down, nailing 18-of-59 thieves, good for 31 percent. A lot of that has to do with the different pitchers he worked with and understanding their repertoire and translating that into his footwork and positioning for the throw.
"He was real good about asking questions," right-hander Ryan Klatt noted when Hundley arrived in Lake Elsinore.
"Hundley has improved his defense, his throwing, and came on strong in the Instructional League," Padres' minor league field coordinator Bill Bryk said. "I think he is going to be a guy that hits for some power and hits for average. Defense is going to be average. I don't see him as being above average defensively but if he hits the defense always get better."
Hundley has spent the off-season working on his cardio to be able to handle the rigors behind the dish. With Colt Morton hurt ahead of him, the backstop is in prime position to leapfrog.
"Hundley – what I like about him is he knows he can do the job," said Hernandez. "If he makes an error or does something bad, he knows about it and tries to work on it. He knows he has the tools. He has shown to the organization – he has big talent and a bright future to be a big league catcher."
ETA: Hundley has a solid combination of power and patience, making him a candidate to hit for a good average, reach base at a high clip, and send balls out of the park. If his defense catches up, Hundley has a chance to be a very good everyday major league catcher. He will not be rushed but he could be the future of the position in San Diego.