The 2017 Major League Baseball First-year Player Draft supplied an uncanny amount of Orange County connections.
Three county players were selected in the top 14, including the No. 1 overall pick in UC Irvine commit Royce Lewis.
Although he can play multiple positions, the Minnesota Twins chose Lewis out of San Juan Capistrano JSerra Catholic High with the intent of developing him as a shortstop.
Having played in the same league his entire career, Mater Dei catcher Blake Hunt was more than happy to share the spotlight. While the scouts were probably showing up to closely observe a next-level talent like Lewis, or the next hot arm like Sherman Oaks Notre Dame’s Hunter Greene, Hunt recognized their presence was also an opportunity for himself.
“That’s only beneficial to me, and it was this season, because if it’s a name on the other team, they’ll still see me play as well,” Hunt said. “Luckily, I’m able to perform whenever they are there for those other people.
“When we played (Orange Lutheran) and JSerra, Garrett Mitchell and Royce (Lewis), there’s a lot of eyes. You’ve got guys on each side of the diamond that can play.”
Trinity League players are privy to a number of high-exposure events. Hunt’s favorite was a trip back to North Carolina for the USA Baseball National High School Invitational his junior year.
In addition, Mater Dei and JSerra co-host the Boras Classic, an annual showcase that Hunt had three chances to play in. He recalled the stands being filled with as many as 60 to 75 scouts for the tournament this year, when they matched up against Notre Dame and Corona Santiago.
Hunt’s draft stock rose as he played in front of bigger crowds. Evaluators were impressed with his defensive skills, and the San Diego Padres thought enough of the Monarchs backstop to make him a first-day selection.
A sizable crowd of family, friends, and neighbors gathered around the television at the Hunt house on Monday. Hunt received 15 minutes of advanced notice that he was going to be picked.
He told only one person, his teammate Maxwell Foxcroft, who had been sitting right next to him when he received the call.
“I had some friends go on a little walk with me and just kind of be there for me,” Hunt said. “It was really emotional because you’ve worked for it this long, and when you’ve finally achieved it, it seemed like a dream.”
Those 15 minutes must have felt like 15 years. Hunt reckons he contacted his agent (Erik Castro of PSI Sports), still in a state of disbelief only minutes before his name was called.
“I didn’t believe it,” Hunt remarked. “I actually texted my agent five minutes before, ‘Is this still happening?’ I was expecting it to fall through.”
If his emotions were hard to keep in check, it has been the same way for his parents, too. Hunt claims that his mom, Cyndi, has not stopped crying since the announcement was made on Monday.
“So happy to see his dreams come true, and still, humility came through on him,” Cyndi said, the tears of joy still flowing prior to her son’s practice session on Wednesday morning. “He couldn’t believe it, either. I’m just so proud of him to see his dream fulfilled. That’s any mother’s wish.
“The love that was in the room, the nice thing about it is that the people that were there during that moment would have supported him whether it happened or not.”
The Padres selected Hunt with the 69th overall pick, a slot that commands a recommended signing bonus of $858,600.
To entice him to forego his commitment to Pepperdine University, Hunt said the Padres are set to offer him above slot value. He plans to sign his deal on Sunday.
Hunt, a Costa Mesa resident, grew up playing with a pair of Huntington Beach Oilers who were also part of the 2017 draft class – Nick Pratto (14th to the Kansas City Royals) and Hagen Danner (61st to the Toronto Blue Jays).
“I played travel ball with Blake since the age of 9 or 10,” Pratto said. “He has made some amazing strides in his game. He made a complete swing change, and he really focused on his defense and became the player he is all on his own.
“On top of all the talent, though, he has been a great friend and teammate over the years.”
Hunt has had access to premium mentors. He has learned under former major-leaguer Brent Mayne as a catching instructor.
For the last five years, he has worked with Adam Kennedy, who was the Anaheim Angels’ second baseman when they won the World Series in 2002.
“His talent level is through the roof,” Kennedy said of Hunt. “Size, speed, and strength. The work that he has put in over his high school career when I’ve been around, the extra work with his trainers to get stronger and faster, and to use all of those abilities and not just sit on them.
“He has really maximized them up to this point, with room for growth, which is really something good for the Padres to look forward to, and him, as well.”
Growing up a San Francisco Giants fan, Hunt naturally idolizes Buster Posey. There are few in the same league as the Giants catcher, as he won a World Series title as a rookie and three by the end of his fifth full season.
Hunt is headed to the right division if he is seeking an up-close-and-personal meeting at home plate with his favorite player.
Catchers as offensively-gifted as Posey are sometimes asked to play other positions to preserve their bodies, and their bats, for the long haul. Their game-calling skills are sometimes missed in that instance. There lies the value that scouts, and Hunt, believe that he brings to the Padres.
“I think they’re getting a pretty good defensive catcher if we’re talking about the physical side of things,” Hunt said. “I think I play with a steady confidence. I’m in control of the field, and that is what a catcher should be – be able to control everything that is going on and direct the defense.
“Offensively, I think I’m a pretty raw hitter, but I have some potential there, and I think I have some raw power that I can bring to the table.”
Hunt is a 6 feet 4, 205-pound right-handed hitter. He posted a .394 batting average, leading the Monarchs in several categories with nine doubles, six home runs, and 28 RBI as a senior this season.
The Padres have a history with Trinity League catchers. Their current starter at the position, Austin Hedges, is a JSerra alumnus.