All in the family

Draft day drama? Lenape’s Cade Hunter, South Jersey’s top high school baseball prospect, just so happens to be the son of one of the 30 people charged with running a Major League team’s draft room.

Lenape’s Cade Hunter has strong baseball bloodlines: the Virginia Tech-bound catcher is the son of Seattle Mariners amateur scouting director Scott Hunter, a former long-time minor leaguer and fifth round pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1993. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

It’s unknown if the stat-happy wiz kids in baseball’s new wave front offices have a metric for the rate scouts show up to high school baseball fields in April and May, but if the ball continues to jump off Cade Hunter’s bat with the exit velocity and launch angle it had on a recent afternoon in Washington Township, people will come.

People will most definitely come.

On this day, Hunter, a senior catcher at Lenape High School, connected on his third home run in four games. The season was only 10 days old and a few scouts have already put eyes on him.

So has a major league front office’s amateur scouting director, one who, along with a scout from the Baltimore Orioles, was among the 20 to 30 people at Washington Township on this day.

“He really understands the passion for the game, not only what it takes to play the game, but also understands all of the work that goes into it,” the Seattle Mariners amateur scouting director said. “You can’t just love to play, you have to love the work that goes into being prepared to play.”

If this particular baseball official sounds like someone who has more info on Cade Hunter than anyone else who could fill out a scouting report, it’s because he does. Scott Hunter is in his third year running the Mariners major league draft.

He’s also Cade Hunter’s dad.

The younger Hunter is making a name for himself as South Jersey’s top prep position player prospect. He has a full scholarship to Virginia Tech in hand and could hear his name called as soon as the second day of MLB’s three-day draft (June 4, when rounds 3-10 take place).

“He’s got 29 teams,” Scott Hunter said in a phone call about the potential awkwardness in a four-person household that includes an 18-year-old hoping to get drafted and his father who just happens to be one of the of 30 people running a major league organization’s draft. “I’ve always joked with people at work, if he ends up being a draft (pick), he’ll have 29 opportunities. As I’ve told coaches through the recruiting process and scouts that have wanted to talk to him after games, he’s his own man, it’s his career and not mine, so I’ll help guide him in the right direction, but at the end of the day he has to live with his decisions and feel comfortable. I think he’s got a great setup at Virginia Tech. … With the draft, as I tell Cade, that’s icing on the cake. The draft will dictate what your next decision is.”

Lenape High School senior Cade Hunter is one of the state’s top two-way catchers. He sports one of the strongest arms in New Jersey behind the plate and can hit, too: he hit home runs in three of his first 13 at-bats this season. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

There are surely tougher quandaries for a high school senior than to decide whether they want to go to college on scholarship and play in a top baseball collegiate conference or to accept a professional signing bonus and contract with a big league organization to jump into minor league ball. Cade Hunter, the oldest of Scott Hunter’s two sons, understands this, of course, because in addition to having soft hands and a commanding presence behind the plate to complement his quick bat, he has an even-keel personality.

He’s managed to tune out a process that’s mostly out of his control until June.

“I just try to play my game, and let whatever happens, happen,” Hunter said. “When you start thinking about it, that’s what affects your play. So you just have to shake it off and play like nobody is watching.”

It’s difficult to argue with his process. Hunter homered twice on the high school season’s Opening Day at Seneca and, with three total, is already more than halfway to surpassing last year’s total (five). Last season, as a junior, 14 of Hunter’s 28 hits went for extra bases and he slashed .424/.513/.818 with 24 RBIs in 22 games.

“Usually he has a very good approach at the plate,” Lenape coach Phil Fiore said after a game when Hunter launched a curve ball over the fence and then got tricked by a backdoor hook in the next at-bat. “He’ll foul away and foul away and then the pitcher will make a mistake and boom. He’s got real quick hands. And he’s simple. If you watch, there’s not a whole lot of movement at the plate, he’s very still and steady, his head’s steady almost the entire time through the zone and that’s good because it helps his vision, and he’s got very good eyesight, he sees the ball well.”

And behind the plate?

“Nothing gets by him, he smothers everything, curveball in the dirt – it’s huge,” Fiore said. “He’s got a really strong arm. He’s got a pop time of 2, 2.1. On a really good day he’ll go sub-2.”

Hunter can control the offense with one swing of the bat and the running game on defense with his arm. What he cannot control is whether he’ll be headed for Blacksburg, Virginia, or an unknown minor league baseball team later this summer, but at least he has someone who went through it before.

Twenty-six springs ago, Scott Hunter was a senior at Northeast High School in Philadelphia with a scholarship offer from the University of North Carolina when the Los Angeles Dodgers selected him with their fifth-round pick. Three days before he had to report to Chapel Hill, Hunter received an attractive offer from Los Angeles and chose Dodger blue over Carolina blue.

The older Hunter never reached the big leagues, but also never regretted his decision as an 18-year-old. Despite being traded two years and two months after the ‘93 draft, he reached Triple-A as a 22-year-old and was added to a major league, 40-man roster, but never got the call during 10 years and more than 1,000 games in the minor leagues.

“Learning from a lot of those experiences, along with my wife, who has been with me since Double-A, there have been some highs in the game where you’re at the pinnacle of knocking on the door to the big leagues, to then being taken off the roster, hitting the waiver wire, and then four different organizations in four different minor league cities in a matter of 18 months,” Hunter said. “So I’ve been blessed to have those experiences and be able to pass along to Cade.”

Hunter returns to the dugout after hitting his third home run of the season. “With his work ethic, his character and his personality, I think he’s got a really good chance to do some things,” said Lenape coach Phil Fiore. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)

He’s also been grateful for the opportunity his second professional baseball career has afforded him, like bringing his son along to check on the Mariners’ Rookie-level teams in the last few summers. It was during these trips that Cade Hunter would see the work of young professional ballplayers and he adapted to it quickly, waking up earlier each day and nudging his dad to take him to the park.

But now, the work has been done. It’s crunch time, for both father and son. It’s the busiest time of the year for Scott Hunter, who stopped in South Jersey en route to a scouting trip to Florida to see Cade play.

In a little more than six weeks, he’ll be at Safeco Field in Seattle running the draft room. Meanwhile, his son could realize a boyhood dream on the other side of the country.

“It’s one of those things me and a couple of guys talk about at work – it’s probably the greatest thing and the hardest thing we have to do, we try to keep it as being a father, but it’s hard not to get wrapped up in it,” the older Hunter said. “One of the hardest things to do is to evaluate your own son, so I’ve tried to teach Cade, don’t do this because I did it, it has to be something you love. And I think probably around age 13 he found a passion for the game and the catching position. It’s been fun seeing him grow into it.”

On June 4, Scott Hunter’s busiest day of the year could very well coincide with the biggest day of Cade Hunter’s lifetime. The elder Hunter laughed at the dilemma.

It’s a good thing he has an area scout in his Mount Laurel home.

“I’m very fortunate, my wife (Kari), she’s been with me (since 1998) and knows the life and is probably better at managing situations than me,” he said. “So she’ll be the point person at home and I’ll obviously be doing my job and keeping an eye on things.”

Hunter takes a throw to home while Washington Township’s Luke Kaschak slides in at the plate. (RYAN LAWRENCE, South Jersey Sports Weekly)