Name: Cedric Hunter
DOB: March 10, 1988
Not many teenage prodigies have his free and easy disposition in the batter's box and he simply refuses to over-swing.
"There isn't really much to say about that kid," AZL Padres hitting coach Manny Crespo said. "He is an advanced hitter and the whole process of it. The way he can change from a leadoff guy to a third hitter. The way he is aggressive. The way he listens. He listened to the hitting approach and I was able to show him both sides. I was able to show him how things don't change according to our hitting plan on that day and never did it the other way. He learns quickly. He pays attention to what you say and he goes out there and he takes it to the game."
"Cedric Hunter offensively he reminds me of when I scouted Terry Pendleton as a free agent," Padres defensive coordinator Tom Gamboa said. "Terry could run, had lightning in his bat – this kid Hunter has real good pitch selection. He has the chance to be a Pendleton type guy with power and some speed. His pitch selection for a high school kid is really good."
He sings a tune every time his arms extend towards the ball and the bat head explodes through the zone. More than anything it is consistent. When taking swings before the at bat, Hunter focuses on his arm extension on inside pitches. He already knows he can get the full extension when the pitcher hits the outside corner. So, he focuses on that inside-out swing that is tough to remember when the ball rides the inside corner and looks meaty enough to taste.
His head is immobile throughout, his hands in a natural hitting position, his bat speed terrific and the barrel of the bat is in the zone for as long as possible. And we have yet to take into account his excellent feel for the strike zone.
What separates Hunter from the pack is his ability to go with the pitch. If he is presented with a ball on the outer portion of the strike zone he will shoot it into the opposite field but will drive balls he can handle on the fat part of the dish or pull the ones on the inner half. It is amazing how well he handles the stick. He follows the path of the ball with his bat better than most veterans, showing an uncanny ability to stay with the pitch and not pull off the ball.
"Let's start with instincts," Padres minor league field coordinator Bill Bryk said of what makes him so good. "He has above average instincts on both offense and defense. He is a natural hitter and things you can't teach he has already got."
"I remember Cedric one time – and he is hitting .390 – and he is 0-for-2 in the game after his first two at bats," Crespo began. "He comes up to me and sits down next to me. He says, ‘Manny, what am I doing?' I said, ‘Cedric, I don't know if anyone has ever told you this in your life but I am going to tell you now. You can't get a hit in EVERY at bat. It is impossible!'
"Cedric gave his half smile and he went up there and got two hits after that. He went 2-for-4 – he hit .500! He was wondering about those two at bats like he did something wrong."
His batting stance and stroke, for lack of better words, were effortless and produced results. There were no wasted swings.
It was an MVP caliber season for Hunter and the Arizona Rookie League justly rewarded him. It started and ended with the bat.
A third-round high school selection out of Martin Luther King High School in Georgia, Hunter hit .540 with 12 homers, 28 RBIs and 20 stolen bases in 69 at bats his senior season. There were some concerns about his speed, but he proved that there were few limits to his talents.
"Cedric Hunter, another athletic kid," Padres scouting director Bill "Chief" Gayton said of what they saw when they scouted him. "We had [Grady] go over and watch Cedric and he got excited. He's athletic All-American last summer. A kid we felt came a long way over a short period of time. The competition's a little less, but we've seen him perform against better competition throughout the country. Very athletic and nice swing. We feel like he will be a fun kid to work with."
He ended the campaign with a .371 average and reached base safely in his first 48 games with the AZL Padres – fun indeed. In 52 games he notched 23 multi-hit contests, including eight different outings where he smacked three or more hits. Hunter was on base 2.35 times per game, drawing 40 walks compared to just 22 strikeouts.
"If you would have told me someone was going to do that I would have said you were crazy," 2006 AZL Padres manager Carlos Lezcano said. "That is unheard of. He was clutch. He is a very, very good hitter, a smart kid and will be a good player someday."
His level swing is conducive to gap power but he will only get stronger and should see his homers increase over time. Changing his swing to meet those expectations would be a mistake as the ball carries well off his bat.
"This kid was fun to watch because he battled every at bat," Crespo added. "He did not give one at bat away. Sometimes he got under balls, just like everyone else. Sometimes he dipped, sometimes he got out in front, but you could tell that he didn't give it away. He was trying to hit.
"He is going to be something to watch. He is going to learn and put it into play pretty quickly. Definitely the MVP of this league."
The outfielder has more speed than he is given credit for and has a good initial step, even though he lacks elite top-end speed. He swiped 17 bases in 22 attempts and that came from his ability to read a pitcher's move and get a good jump.
That translated well in the outfield. There were concerns that he wouldn't be able to handle centerfield but he negated those doubters by working hard on his craft, getting good reads off the bat and taking direct paths to the ball. He doesn't have a great arm but it is accurate and he moves forward towards the ball to setup his throws.
"He is definitely a centerfielder," Crespo said. "There is no doubt about it. The kid can run and people say he can't run too fast but I don't care because he gets to some balls that other kids don't. He can cover ground and that is what you want from a centerfielder.
"He gets great jumps off the base. Overall a fun player to watch. His effort level is there. He goes about his business like a professional. He smiles a lot. His smile is big – they underrate that but it is fun to have players that enjoy that."
"Great athlete," teammate Kyler Burke said of Hunter. "It was a lot of fun playing with (Hunter) and a great experience."
He also led the team in productive outs with five sacrifice flies and a sacrifice bunt. His understanding of the fundamentals is advanced for his age. He will hit behind the runner, work the dead zones on a hit-and-run and do whatever he can to move the runner over while getting on base himself.
It would have been easy to discount his season – it was rookie ball – but he continued his mastery in the Padres' Instructional Leagues – earning MVP honors against better competition.
Hunter is as well rounded as they come. He has a great attitude, takes instruction and quickly implements it into his repertoire and strives to be the best.
"Cedric Hunter has a chance to move fast," Bryk said. "Cedric is pretty much polished already. He is a special kid. I make comparisons – and this is putting my neck out, which I am pretty good at doing – but one of the best young hitters I have had since I had Tony Gwynn. I had a Jay Buenor who was a pretty good major leaguer but he wasn't the natural hitter that Cedric or Tony Gwynn are."
ETA: Hunter will be challenged more in the future than he was this season. If the success continues, promotions will be quicker to the punch so he can continually test his mettle against better competition. At 19, Hunter has power projection but his strength is in his level swing and ability to put the ball where the fielders aren't. Another successful year will have him on the fast track. It is, however, to early to project when he will make San Diego his home – only know that he will one day. The early prognosis is 2010.