In Their Footsteps: The fourth starter

Tommy Hunter has progressed further than virtually every one of the 53 players chosen before him 13 months ago in the 2007 draft.  The big righthander was 21 years old when he reached AAA a week ago.  Chris Young was 25 when he reached AAA.  The differences don’t end there.

Young was Pittsburgh’s third-round pick in 2000, a two-sport star at Princeton who chose to forgo a likely NBA career to sign for first-round money ($1.65 million) and who was immediately installed by Baseball America as the Pirates’ number two pitching prospect before he’d thrown a professional pitch.  Hunter, though drafted higher than Young, was less heralded coming out of school, a sophomore at the University of Alabama who bounced between the Crimson Tide rotation and bullpen and was projected to last until the third or fourth round but instead went to Texas as a supplemental first-rounder.

Both righthanders got off to surprising starts.

Young, who signed too late in 2000 to play, debuted in 2001 for Low A Hickory and would spend two full seasons with that club (with an arthroscopic elbow procedure in between), frustrating the Pirates with a fastball that sat in the high 80s.  Pittsburgh, despite coming off three seasons in which the club averaged 94 losses, made its disappointment with Young clear after the 2002 season by making the curious decision to trade him, along with another minor league pitcher, to Montreal for 32-year-old middle reliever Matt Herges.

Herges didn’t even make it out of spring training with the Pirates.  He was released in March.

Young spent one season in the Expos’ system, faring well (9-6, 3.11 between High A Brevard County and AA Harrisburg), but he threw just five quality starts in 15 AA appearances, and Montreal decided in April 2004 that his future wasn’t too high a price to pay (along with minor league catcher/infielder Josh McKinley) for the pleasure of adding Einar Diaz as a backup to starting catcher Brian Schneider (and minor league righthander Justin Echols).

The 6’10″ Young, who had disappointed two franchises in his brief pro career, was the biggest surprise of the 2004 season in the entire Rangers organization.  

Texas assigned the Highland Park product to Frisco, and as the organization deconstructed Young and introduced a longer stride and a new arm angle, suddenly he was lighting the radar gun up in the mid-90s.  Despite a 4.48 RoughRiders ERA, Young was ready for better competition in the Rangers’ estimation, and he was promoted in late July to AAA Oklahoma.  

He wouldn’t be there long.

In five RedHawks starts, Young gave up five earned runs, posting a 3-0, 1.48 record and holding opponents to a .189 average.  In 30.1 innings, he fanned 34 hitters.  He hasn’t seen the minor leagues since.

Texas called Young up on August 24, 2004, and he debuted that night, falling one out short of a quality start.  He remained in the Rangers’ rotation for the balance of the club’s 89-win season, making seven starts in all (3-2, 4.71) and giving up more than three earned runs just one time.  When the Sacramento Kings reportedly made overtures to Young that winter, Texas responded by committing a three-year deal to a pitcher who, one year earlier, had practically been given away for the second time in a year and a half.

Young went into the 2005 season as the leading candidate for the number four spot in the Rangers’ rotation, behind Ryan Drese, Kenny Rogers, and Chan Ho Park, and he posted a 3.86 ERA in camp to secure a job.  He proceeded to win 12 games, second only to Rogers’s 14.

But though he led the staff in starts (31), he averaged just 5.1 innings per start, and some in the organization concluded that the 28-year-old’s body would wear down annually in the Texas heat (even though he posted a 3.60 ERA in 10 August and September starts).  The Rangers traded Young that winter to San Diego, along with first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and outfielder Terrmel Sledge, for righthanders Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka and minor league catcher Billy Killian.

It was the third time that Young – who has a 3.46 ERA, 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings, and one All-Star appearance in three seasons as San Diego’s number three and then number two starter – had been traded badly.  In both of his full seasons with the Padres, Young has led the National League in fewest hits allowed per nine innings.

The evolution of Tommy Hunter may be almost as unlikely as Young’s, but in a vastly different way.  While Young didn’t develop nearly as quickly as his first two clubs had hoped, Hunter has progressed in a way that no club – even Texas – could have envisioned a year ago.

When the Rangers drafted Hunter in June 2007, they were determined to keep his load light, as he’d thrown 245.2 innings as a freshman and sophomore, including 21.1 frames for Team USA in the summer between those two seasons.  Assigning the 6’3″, 255-pound hurler to Short Season A Spokane, Texas limited him to 17.2 innings last summer, all in relief.  The strike-thrower issued just one walk, striking out 13 in his 10 appearances, posting a 2.55 ERA.

Less than a year later, Hunter is pitching four levels higher.  

And he leads all of minor league baseball in innings pitched.

In 19 starts between High A Bakersfield, AA Frisco, and AAA Oklahoma this season, Hunter is 9-7, 3.57, and in his last outing, he pitched the game of his life, needing just 94 pitches to go the distance against AAA Albuquerque and allowing two runs on seven hits and no walks, fanning three.  In 126 innings this season, Hunter has issued only 27 walks (fewer than two per nine innings), coaxing more groundouts than flyouts.

Despite the fact that Hunter was one of the youngest college players drafted last year and that he relieved more often than he started in his final season at Alabama, the Rangers suggested the day they drafted Hunter that he could move quickly as a starting pitcher.  It’s safe to say, however, that he’s exceeded even the Rangers’ expectations, just as Chris Young did when he claimed the fourth spot in the Texas rotation, even if too briefly.  

 

Jamey Newberg is a contributor to MLB.com.  A Dallas lawyer, he has been an insane Texas Rangers fan since the days of scheduled doubleheaders, Bat Nights when they actually handed out a piece of lumber instead of a grocery store voucher, and Jim Umbarger.  He has covered the Texas Rangers, from the big club down through the entire farm system, since 1998 on his website, NewbergReport.com.  This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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