Scouting Padres Prospect Cedric Hunter

San Diego Padres prospect Cedric Hunter took a step back in 2009 largely because of the successes he had in previous seasons. The outfielder struggled to adjust when the methods he employed in the past did not work.

Vital Statistics;
Name: Cedric Hunter
Position: OF
DOB: March 10, 1988
Height: 6-foot-0
Weight: 195
Bats: Left
Throws: Left

Selected in the third-round of the 2006 draft, Hunter was assigned to the Arizona Rookie League. Over 52 games, Hunter dominated the competition, hitting .371 with 18 extra base hits, 44 RBI and 46 runs scored. He also drew 40 walks compared to 22 strikeouts for a .467 on-base percentage. The outfielder added 17 stolen bases in 22 attempts. Hunter reached base safely in each of his first 48 games en route to winning MVP honors.

Sent to Fort Wayne in 2007, the outfielder hit .282 over the course of 129 games. He tallied 29 extra base hits, including seven homers, scored 53 runs and notched 58 RBI. He also drew 47 walks compared to 78 strikeouts for a .344 on-base percentage. He also swiped eight bases in 17 attempts.

High-A Lake Elsinore was on tap for the '08 season. Batting first, second and third most of the season, Hunter ended the season with a .318 average – hitting over .300 in all but one month during the campaign.

The outfielder also notched a career high 47 extra-base hits for the Storm, including 11 homers, and scored a team-high 98 runs while driving in 84.

A left-handed hitter, Hunter nearly halved his strikeout numbers from the previous season, dropping from 78 to 47 in more games. His eight percent strikeout rate led the circuit. He drew 42 walks to give him a .362 on-base percentage.

He also notched a team-high 11 sacrifice flies, adding productive outs to his list of achievements. Hunter swatted .406 with runners in scoring position while hitting .340 off southpaws and .312 off right-handers.

His 186 led the California League and the minors, and Hunter placed third in the circuit in batting average and second in runs scored. His 95.5 wRC (weighted Runs Created based off weighted On Base Average) ranked third in the Cal League.

The left-handed hitter ended up in Double-A for 2009. He played in 131 games for San Antonio, hitting .261 with 28 extra-base hits, 71 runs scored and 54 RBI. He drew 25 walks compared to 43 strikeouts for a .294 on-base percentage. He upped his average by 13 points over the final two weeks of the season, going 17-for-40 in his final nine games.

"He turned it on the last three or four weeks," former San Antonio and current Portland hitting coach Orv Franchuk said. "He hit the ball as hard and as loud as anybody we had in our club. So that was nice to end that way."

The Georgia native hit 41 points higher off right-handed pitchers than lefties. He also hit .279 with runners in scoring position.

"All of the hitters, it doesn't matter where they come from, they work off success," hitting coordinator Tony Muser said. "That success is always history. Your confidence when you go up there and you're first at-bat and all of the games that you've played in are behind you. The years are behind you. Their success comes from history. His history is a great year in Lake Elsinore, great year. I don't know if he had nine games where he went hitless. It's an offensive league, it's a very fast, hard infield, it's a spacious park unless you pull it as a left-handed hitter down the right field line; but it is an offensive league. It's a league where he had great success at putting the ball in play.

"He gets into San Antonio where right center field is dead, wind blows in, can't squeak a ball in that gap. The only time he could hit a homer was just pull it right at the scoreboard in that ballpark where the wind didn't affect the baseball. He is a hitter that was able to take borderline pitches away early in the count and get on top of them and have a lot of success with line drives over the shortstop's head and the five-hole between the shortstop and third baseman. The infield was so quick he could roll the ball through that three-four hole over there. It's an infield that's not as quick. The ballpark is not lively. Now he's been presented with this wall of getting better pitches to drive. His pitch selection needs to tighten up. He had success by taking that same approach into Double-A, and it has not worked for him.

The center fielder also hit .353 with four extra-base hits in the Texas League playoffs. Hunter went on to play in the Arizona Fall League, hitting .247 across 28 games. He had just four doubles and a .283 on-base percentage.

Overall, it was a disappointing season for a player who led the minors in hits the season before.

"We have kind of let Cedric go all these years and be the type of hitter that he wanted because he had so much success," former Padres vice president of scouting and player development Grady Fuson said.

He tends to pull more pitches than he should because of excellent bat control. Hunter can put bat to ball with the best of them but needs better strike zone judgment to effectively use his innate ability to produce positive results. His .280 BABIP was amongst the lowest in the league.

While he can make contact, oftentimes it is weak, as his mechanics falter and he is reaching for a pitch or swinging outside of the strike zone.

For someone with his type of hand-eye coordination, Hunter should limit his swings to pitches he handles well. Pitchers understand that his zone is expanded and abuse that. If he narrows his view, he can return to the form that saw him hit over .300.

"He's got to get stronger, but his pitch selection," Muser began. "He offers at pitches he can't drive, and his physical strength affected him in the Double-A level. He may have to come back and repeat. I don't know where we'll be at during the four months over the winter. But strength and regrouping and his mental approach to driving baseballs and not just hitting baseballs will be crucial for him."

Hunter is someone that should be drawing an abundance of walks but has regressed in this area. Striking out just once every 13.42 plate appearances – amongst the best in the minors and tops in the Texas League – gives an indication of his control. Matching it with higher walk totals would be ideal.

"The big thing with Cedric is that he never learned what pitch that he could drive best," Fuson said. "He offers at a lot of things around the zone, and that is where the weak ground balls and little pop flies come from, and thus ends up with so many non-quality at-bats.

"By August, he was ready to start making some changes and started to begin to become more selective. Terry [Kennedy, the manager of the Missions] said he was the toughest out at the end of the playoffs."

Hunter is a line drive hitter that has a relatively level swing. He has slight loft but does a good job keeping the bat parallel to the ground through the hitting zone. Keeping the ball out of the air is imperative to his success, as he does not have the power to take it out of the park and is generally an easy out when he does lift the rock. His strength is center to right-center but he did not take the ball the other way often enough in 2009.

"A lot of the changes were mental approach and there was some physical stuff that had to be addressed and that's continuing," former San Antonio and current Portland manager Terry Kennedy said. "He finally realized that some of his mental approach – he's so good at putting the bat on the ball that he would get away with it in the lower leagues and get base hits on border line strikes or balls just out of the zone, but that wasn't happening. They were turning into outs in our league.

"He got a little better strike zone and that's something that will continue to improve, but also it kept the ball out of the air. Our ballpark with the wind blowing in, it's Death Valley, and he made just so many easy outs to the outfield. Then the last three weeks he made some good adjustments and kept the ball out of the air and it showed. And he hit very well. He was our best hitter in the playoffs."

Mechanically, Hunter has some moving parts that need to be calmed down. He is a late in his swing load and doesn't get enough separation to really drive the ball with consistency. A traditional load would bring the hands back at shoulder level whereas Hunter drops his hands down below that mark. It looks like he is pushing his swing through the zone rather than letting it fly.

"He does have a lot of moving parts to his swing and we are dealing with that," Franchuk said. "Some guys have an easier time making adjustments. We haven't really done anything major, but he does have some parts to his swing that will need to be cleaned up as he goes forward.

"He led all minor league baseball in hits (in 2008) so I haven't messed with his swing that much. I've tweaked a few things, but everyone has a little different approach."

The left-handed hitter has also developed a wrap in his swing that must be curtailed. It is quite pronounced and makes him late to the ball. He must, therefore, start his swing earlier. That makes pitch recognition a tougher proposition.

Defensively, Hunter has improved tremendously. He gets good reads off the bat and positions himself well before the pitch is delivered. He has the range to track balls down in the gap and has an accurate arm that is average in terms of strength. He can play all three outfield positions well but profiles best in center where he can use his smarts and athleticism to make heady plays.

"Defensively, probably one of the better outfielders that I've spent time with baseball all the years that I've been involved," Franchuk said. "Great routes, knew the hitters, threw guys out at the plate; just a really good outfielder. Whether or not he plays center field in the big leagues, I don't know, but to me that's his best position. He can play all three spots, but I think his best position is center field."

Hunter is a tick above average as a runner. He stole 13 bases in 16 attempts this past season and has become more adept at reading a pitcher and stealing bases when the count is favorable.

The former third-rounder has been resistant to change, at times. He has grown up with strong influences in his life and has had so much success to this point that it has been moot. Over the last year, however, he began to realize there were paths to success he was not taking. He took steps towards that in his mental maturity in 2009.

"His father was probably his biggest fan and his biggest coach growing up, and he trusted a lot of the things that his dad did with him with his swing," Franchuk said. "So there was a little bit of that barrier."

One area of his game that needs improvement is in the strength category. Given his high contact rate, increased muscle mass would push weak hitters into the outfield for hits. His hard contacts would also go up and balls hit into the gaps could fall more regularly. The addition of 10-15 pounds of lean muscle would be a huge lift to his overall game.

"The big thing with Cedric is if he is going to be a .270 hitter with no on-base or power, he's not going to make it," Fuson said. "If he can hit for a little higher average, but with some gappers and more on-base, he has a chance especially if he can stay in center. He's another guy that needs to get more physical in all aspects of his game."

"He is not a strong kid yet, but he's a very young kid and he's going to get stronger with a weight training program," Muser said. He needs it badly. But I'll tell you, I still believe in him, and in the playoffs, he picked it up. I think he hit a homer in the playoffs, He also drove doubles. So he's a guy that got into better pitching, tougher pitching and rose above from the year that he had overall.

"I still like him. He's a player. He got better defensively in center field. He's throwing better. I like his competitive nature and I know it's been a down year for him when you look at the big picture, but I still believe in Cedric Hunter."

Conclusion: Hunter has gone backwards with some mechanical things in his swing but still has the ability to be a high average hitter with some power. He is also a quality defender. If Hunter can improve his pitch selection and grow stronger, something he did achieve during the off-season, his ceiling remains high. He will never be a power threat but the sum of his parts beyond that remains impressive, especially as someone who can thrive in Petco Park. Those within the organization believe he can make the necessary adjustments.

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