EL PASO — Hunter Renfroe, 24, has always been one of the most physically gifted prospects in the Padres’ system, the classic five-tool player – hit for average, hit for power, run, throw and play defense. Since last July, the talents so many scouts have dreamed on have begun to emerge.
After making some mechanical adjustments to his swing in Double-A San Antonio last year, Renfroe hit .333/.358/.633 with six home runs in 21 games after a late-season promotion to Triple-A El Paso. This year, he is off to an equally hot start with the Chihuahuas, closing out April at .291/.333/.582.
"I saw Hunter when he destroyed the Cal League in 2014," said Rod Barajas, his manager in El Paso this season and last year with the Missions. "He did it all on physical talent in [High-A] Lake Elsinore, he was just better than everyone else in the league."
"The difference now is that he realizes it has to be more than just physical talent."
One of the big separators in the minor leagues is the jump from High-A to Double-A, where pitchers have the ability to throw more than one pitch and much better command of their fastballs. Hunter struggled after he was first promoted from the Storm in the second half of 2014.
Renfroe hit .232 in 60 games in the second half of 2014 and was hitting a paltry .184 last April before getting together with his hitting coach Morgan Burkhart, who is also with him again in El Paso this season, to make a few changes.
"I made some adjustments in late May and in June last year," said Renfroe after one of the Chihuahuas’ recent games. "I was always kind of a toe-tap guy in college and we really cut that down. The main thing was just getting smoother, or quieter, to the ball instead of jumping at it."
However, as Barajas mentioned, what has impressed most observers in the organization is not the mechanical adjustments that he has made with his swing, but the mental growth that they have seen in the past year.
"I had this conversation with Morgan and he noticed that Hunter has started coming up to him in games and asking pretty advanced questions about hitting; what he should or should not do in certain situations," said Barajas. "In essence, he’s looking at more of the mental challenges of the game than just the physical, which didn’t happen as much last year."
While Renfroe does acknowledge the mental growth in his game, particularly in his approach at the plate, to him it is just part of the continuum of his development.
"The higher you go, the mental part becomes bigger than the physical," Renfroe said on the differences between levels. "Every year you come to a different level and you are trying to learn something different. You get more at-bats, you see more balls and you just try to get better."
In addition to his growth at the plate, his defense has also improved. Renfroe, who was a catcher throughout Little League and high school, did not begin to play the outfield until his sophomore year at Mississippi State and focused more on improving his footwork and routes during spring training.
"A lot of it comes naturally, but I do work on it every day and try to just work on my jumps by running after balls in BP. "
"I work on my turns and drop steps, being able to get the balls that are hit over my head. If I can become more efficient, I can get to more of them."
While he has the ability to play all three outfield positions â and he is usually the backup centerfielder for Manuel Margot â it’s always been his arm in right field that draws the most attention.
"I’m always kind of hoping the third base coach is going to send the runner from first when the batter hits the ball to him," laughed Barajas. "Hunter has a cannon and it’s fun to watch."
"He’s always been solid out there. Every now and then he might misplay a ball, but he has always been a plus defender. He charges the ball well and he likes to throw."
Since he was first drafted by the Padres with the 13th overall selection in the 2013 draft, the organization and his teammates have always been amazed at just how many things Hunter can do well – and moreover, what he may be able to do in the future.
"He can do a lot of things well â and he can hit a lot of pitches well. I think sometimes that can get him into trouble too," said Burkhart. "It’s ongoing, we are getting him to learn situations and play to his strengths."
"He has come a long way from last year, but still has some finishing. But the attitude, effort and ability that I have seen from him is going to pay off."
Much of the growth in Renfroe’s development just comes from getting a chance to play more. At Mississippi State, he only played in 14 games as a freshman, six of them as a pitcher. He had a mediocre year as a sophomore before being propelled to the first round after a monster junior year with a .345/.431/.620 slash line and 16 home runs.
He still ended up with only 560 plate appearances, which is about 200 less than other comparable college players that San Diego has drafted like Auston Bousfield and Nick Torres.
As Burkhart said, Hunter isn’t quite ready to be an everyday player in the big leagues yet, but he’s also not that far away either.
"He has the desire to get him over the hump on the mental and physical side and he’s willing to work at it; so it’s all there."
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