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40 in 40: Blake Hunt’s journey is a familiar one

Mariners get involved with the risky business of prep catchers (long after the risk has passed)

Salt River Rafters v Mesa Solar Sox Photo by Chris Bernacchi/Diamond Images via Getty Images

It’s common knowledge that the Padres Be Wilding—sharing a division with the perennial bullies of the Dodgers does that to a team—but maybe one aspect of risk-taking for the Friars that doesn’t get enough attention is their love of drafting prep prospects. Between 2016-2019, the Padres used 69 of their draft picks on preps; that’s just two shy of the total number of high school players drafted by the Mariners over the past decade. And the Padres have generally spent highly on those prep picks, as well; the last time the Padres took a college player in the first round was back in 2016, when they took Cal Quantrill out of Stanford. And, because risk is fun, the Padres don’t shy away from taking high-risk players like pitchers and catchers, as they did in 2017, when they spent their first three picks on a prep pitcher (Mackenzie Gore in the first round) followed by two straight prep catchers: Luis Campusano and Blake Hunt, the latter from Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, just a short drive up I-5 from San Diego.

But Hunt wouldn’t hang around in San Diego’s system long enough to make his debut as a Padre, being sent as part of the four-player package to the Rays in exchange for Blake Snell in 2020. The Rays decided they didn’t need two former Padres catchers and opted to keep Francisco Mejía and trade Hunt to the Mariners to clear up some 40-man space, which is why trading for prospect volume is usually less preferable than trading for a higher-tier prospect, unless you’re in possession of a mess of empty roster spots for some reason and just need warm bodies.

“40-man roster casualty” feels like a ways to fall for a former second-rounder, but this is where that risk part comes in: high school catchers are notoriously difficult to get through to the majors intact; if they can hit, they usually don’t make it up as a catcher because of the lengthy learning arc of the position and general beating catchers take; conversely, if they can field but can’t hit, they struggle to stick in pro ball at all.

Hunt’s rise through pro ball could be pasted into prospect handbooks as the ur-journey for a prep catcher. A glove-first backstop praised for his natural athleticism and instincts behind the plate as a prep, Hunt struggled initially at the plate in pro ball. He got an outsized strikeout rate under control in Low-A ball, then made a swing change during the pandemic year to unlock more power, but his strikeout issues returned with a vengeance. At Double-A, he worked to get those strikeouts down again, but at the cost of some of his power, and to begin 2023 was sent back to Double-A as a 24-year-old, an age where many of his peers drafted from high school or signed internationally had already cracked the bigs. Such is life of the prep catcher.

Happily, Hunt rebounded in 2023, transitioning to Triple-A smoothly with both his plate discipline and power intact. While the prospect shine has mostly worn off, vestiges of the former highly regarded prospect still pop up, specifically when the six-foot-four Hunt makes the kind of loud contact that first echoed through empty ballparks back in 2020:

With perennial “break glass in case of emergency” catcher Brian O’Keefe out of the organization, Hunt will take over that role in Tacoma, where he’ll be a legitimately interesting player to watch to see if he can continue to recover his early-career prospect buzz. It’s been a long journey for Hunt, as it’s been a long journey for the prep catchers who have come before him, but one way or another, that journey looks to be approaching its final stage in Seattle.