James McCann signed a four-year, $40.6-million contract with the Mets this offseason. Prior to his age-29 season in 2019, he had produced just a 76 OPS+ over his first five years with the Tigers and was subsequently non-tendered. The still-unsigned J.T. Realmuto's first All-Star appearance didn't come until he was 27. Christian Vazquez was a well-below-average hitter until he erupted for 23 homers at 28 in 2019. Even Yadier Molina was worth only 5.1 bWAR over his first five seasons in the Majors. The patron saint of such circumstances is Austin Nola -- a longtime Minor League infielder who transitioned behind the plate in 2017 and was the centerpiece of a major deadline deal between the Mariners and Padres as a 30-year-old catcher.
The point is catchers tend to take longer to reach their breakout season than their pitching and position-player counterparts, and there are good reasons why, according to Rays No. 24 prospect Blake Hunt.
"You can pinpoint high school catchers that get drafted especially, they're probably the latest of bloomers because there's definitely a level of maturity that you kind of have to grow into," said Hunt, who was taken by the Padres with the 69th overall pick in the 2017 Draft out of a California high school. "On top of that, there are so many facets of the game behind the plate that you have to become aware of, and you only learn that through experience. Basically [becoming] a manager or coach on the field, that takes years."
Hunt would know something about that. Three years after he was drafted, the 22-year-old could have been on track for a breakout in 2020, if not for the coronavirus pandemic that halted Minor League play. Instead, he showed off his improved skill set on both sides of the field at San Diego's alternate site and during the fall instructional league. Then on Dec. 29, he was traded to Tampa Bay as one of the four players dealt for former AL Cy Young award winner Blake Snell. When Hunt is next able to show off just how far he's come since Class A Fort Wayne in 2019, it will be in Rays colors.
"[The Padres and I] had discussed being a part of big league camp this year," Hunt said. "Of course, none of this was really official, but they told me that I was probably going to Double-A. From there, the ball was in my court. They basically said in the meeting, 'We're happy with the strides you've made over the last six months [during the shutdown],' and that I had showed up to the alternate side ready to go. I think I kinda proved to them that this is getting real, and I was getting close to being ready."
To understand where Hunt could be headed now in the Tampa Bay system, step back up to where he was during his days as a San Diego prospect. At a listed 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, Hunt was drafted as a large catcher, albeit one who gave himself a shot to stick behind the plate due to a plus arm and solid pop times. Offensively, he was known for a long swing due to his size, but with an approach that resulted in a good amount of contact. The power potential was there as well, but took some time to translate into games.
As is often the case with young catchers, the Padres took the slow road with the right-handed slugger, sending him to the complex-level Arizona League in 2017, Class A Short Season Tri-City in 2018 and Class A Fort Wayne. That last stop represented Hunt's first time getting more than 300 at-bats in a Minor League season, and he held his own, albeit far from what anyone might call a breakout just yet. The California native hit .255/.331/.381 with five homers, three triples and 21 doubles over 89 games, numbers that resulted in an above-average 108 wRC+ in the Midwest League.
Even though defense was a strength and the bat needed a little room to grow to stand out, the Padres instructed Hunt to focus on his work behind the plate entering 2020. San Diego catching instructor Brian Whatley and special assistant A.J. Ellis wanted the more-experienced backstop to start working on his leadership skills as a catcher. Ellis even went as far as to suggest starting a journal, in which Hunt could take notes on every pitcher he catches (as well as those he opposes) in search of becoming a better game-caller for each individual hurler. At age 21, he had plenty of room to develop with the way he physically caught a game. When Spring Training officially shut down in March, Hunt was well into his work in joining many catchers across the game by dropping down to one knee at all times in his catching stance.
"Everyone's trying to work on the low pitch now, so I was making that adjustment," he said. "Blocking out of a traditional setup with someone [my size], moving laterally is pretty tough just because I have long legs. So by planting my one knee on the ground, moving laterally just became so much easier, and I was able to block pitches that I wasn't able to block before. Then footwork on transfers and throwing, that became simpler and shorter because it took one side of the body out of the picture. All I had to do was focus on getting in line because one knee was already on the ground. It provided improvements in every area -- throwing, blocking and receiving."
Even when the game shut down and it was unclear when or if Hunt would head to Class A Advanced Lake Elsinore, he didn't find it difficult to continue his work on the defensive end. Back home in Orange County, Hunt found plenty of pro pitchers -- though none from the Rays or Padres that he can recall -- who needed a throwing partner, and those friendly bullpen sessions helped the catcher stay fresh with his new technique in the early summer.
"Turned out being a catcher, I was a hot commodity," he said.
Hunt also continued to tinker with ways he could generate the most power from his 6-foot-3 frame while making a good amount of contact. After all, his strikeout rate at Class A Fort Wayne was 17.8 percent in a league where the average was 23.2. Part of that high contact rate was pitch selection. Another was the lack of moving parts in Hunt's pre-swing setup. The slugger used minimal, if any, leg kick in the early days of his career, though he admits to being more "Kris Bryant-ish" at times with his legs. The hope had been to generate the power from the upper body, including his long arms, but when those levers got too long, Hunt knew he had to adjust back.
"[Power] was more or less like an internal focus, where the external result would be the home run, that would be the result," he said. "You know, I just tried to make my movements with my load and my hands just as efficient and short as possible. Being a long leverage guy, that's going to be tough just because I tend to get longer. Being short and quick to the ball and taking inefficient path, that was my primary focus with my hitting guy. Whenever I showed up, it seemed to translate onto the field. Less was more for me. I started to tap into more barrels and more power."
While Hunt was working on this at home, the Padres asked him to stay ready for a potential move to the alternate site at the University of San Diego. Even when Hunt's name wasn't on the Summer Camp or initial alt site lists, team execs and coaches stayed in communication with the backstop, telling him his chance could come at any moment. Then in late August -- as the Padres prepared for a busy trade deadline -- the call came for Hunt to join the 60-man player pool, and he proved rather quickly he was going to be more than just an able catching partner for the pitching staff.
"I showed up the first day we had a game, and I hit a homer in our game," Hunt said, adding the shot came off left-hander Daniel Camarena, who has made 51 appearances at the Triple-A level. "Yeah, that was a nice statement for myself to just kind of say, 'Hey guys, I told you I was gonna stay ready, and I held up my part of the bargain, so let's get this show on the road.'"
Hunt spent six weeks at the alt site, going to home games at Petco Park and watching as former player pool members (like his friend Ryan Weathers) got their cracks at The Show. From there, he headed to instructional league play in Arizona, where he could fill a larger role as a leader around younger prospects. Still fresh from his time in San Diego, Hunt took off offensively, carrying over the power he had shown against older competition and solidifying his defensive chops with the new one-knee stance. In noting that Hunt would soon become a Top-100 talent in the FanGraphs rankings, prospect writer Eric Longenhagen shared video of the catcher displaying the type of pop that would get a player a lot more than five home runs in the Midwest League.
Hunt's growth and improved promise led to the aforementioned discussions with San Diego brass about likely being ticketed for Double-A in 2021 with his first Major League Spring Training invite coming before that. Instead in late December, he found out -- first in a text from _The Athletic_'s Dennis Lin -- that he was being moved to the Rays in the blockbuster that sent Snell the other way. Conversations with the Rays have been limited to basic introductions so far as everyone in the baseball world tries to figure out if Spring Training can start on time and how many non-roster invitees will be allowed to participate in big league camps under COVID-19 protocols.
After a year of playing things by ear and thriving along the way, Hunt says nothing has changed in his offseason preparation since his move to the Tampa Bay system.
"Absolutely not," he said. "I've been mentally preparing -- before the trade -- to be ready, for the middle of February when pitchers and catchers were supposed to report. So my mind-set is staying the same. I'll be ready for that. And you know, what if it does turn out that I don't go to big league camp and I might have an extra six weeks to train? It's all good. I'll be ready. And it just gives me a little bit more time to get bigger and stronger."
One thing that will change will be the farm system around Hunt and his placement on its depth chart. With San Diego, Hunt was overshadowed by No. 46 overall prospect Luis Campusano among catching prospects, and those two ranked behind the acquired Nola and Victor Caratini on the Major League roster. In Tampa Bay, No. 14 Ronaldo Hernandez is the only backstop prospect ranked higher than Hunt with Mike Zunino and fellow former Padre Francisco Mejía setting up shop at the top level. For all the Rays' depth on the farm, there does seem to be a path forward to Tropicana Field for the organization's newest upper-level catcher, whether he starts at predicted Double-A or Class A Advanced, where he's still yet to play. Either way, trying to stand out in a crowded field of young talent isn't anything new.
"I had been with [arguably] the No. 1 farm system for so long, and the depth just seemed so crazy," Hunt said. "Then it turns out I'm getting traded to the new No. 1 farm system. So there shouldn't be too much of a difference there. There's definitely going to be a ton of dudes that are just as talented, if not more so. So it'll be exciting. It's just gonna be my new norm."
That brings things to what Hunt calls "the elephant in the room." Fresh off their first postseason appearance since 2006, the Padres have acquired multiple star players this offseason with the hopes of challenging the World Series champion Dodgers in the NL West and doing more than just punching a ticket to the playoffs. The Rays, even after the trade of their former ace, should have similar aspirations for a deep October run one year after finishing as Fall Classic runners-up. With strong farm systems built to succeed beyond 2021, it's possible a San Diego-Tampa Bay World Series could come in the near future, and if Hunt continues his trajectory, he could be behind the plate for the showdown of his two professional teams, maybe even against a trade partner and a fellow Blake on the mound.
"I'm definitely still emotionally attached to the Padres," Hunt said. "I wish them nothing but the best. If I see a game on TV, I'm obviously going to be rooting for them. But I can tell you it's probably pretty even right now. Who knows? It really wouldn't surprise me if we see a Padres-Rays World Series. That'd be a win-win for everyone."
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.