At some point, Jon Hunton knows he will have to have a talk. He'll take a Somerset reliever aside, explain that as the director of player personnel he has to make the hard decisions. Sometimes that means telling a player that there's no longer a spot on the roster for him. This is one of those times.
Those are hard words to hear. But Hunton knows how to deliver the news. He's been released himself, multiple times. So he knows how it feels when you're told it's time to move on, which can make it a little easier to bear bad news. Which is good, because at some point Hunton is going to have to have this conversation with himself.
Hunton has a unique role. He's the Somerset Patriots' personnel director, in charge of putting together the roster, finding new players and releasing others. And when he's not working in the front office, he's working in the bullpen as the team's closer. He is responsible for finding the night's starting pitcher and then it's his job to ensure that pitcher gets to earn his win by pitching a clean ninth.
It's a job that comes with complications. But so far, it has worked out well for the Patriots. Somerset had the best record in the Atlantic League at the start of June after finishing with the best record in the league last year. And Hunton is one of the better closers in the league, posting a 2.13 ERA with seven saves through the start of June. Two jobs for the price of one.
Many kids dream of pitching in the big leagues. Hunton had those dreams, but more than those, he wanted to put together the team.
“I used to play video games, I used to pick my team. I used to draft my team. I always wanted to start my team. I'm an only child, that's how I spent my day," Hunton said.
When you are 6-foot-9 and throw 92-94 mph, convincing a team to let you pitch isn't that hard. Hunton was drafted four times, finally signing with the Cubs after being picked in the 11th round of the 2004 draft.
Hunton made it to high Class A Daytona but was released. He wasn't ready to give up on baseball, so he tried out for the Kansas City T-Bones, and was released again by manager Andy McCauley.
“I had no problem him releasing me. He did it in a professional manner," Hunton said.
Lesson learned. McCauley also went a step further by helping get Hunton a job with Coastal Bend. Another lesson and another connection.
“Any connection or pipeline I could build, I did," Hunton said.
Hunton played for five different independent league teams over the next two years, but it paid off. He was spotted and signed by the A's. He made it to Triple-A this time before his last best shot at a big league career ended with his release in 2010.
Second Career Calling
The seeds of his second career had already been planted. In 2008, Hunton was traded to Somerset at the end of the Atlantic League season. He pitched well enough to earn a role as the team's set-up man, and his scouting acumen helped the team as well.
With the playoffs nearing, Hunton approached manager Sparky Lyle and pitching coach Brett Jodie and asked if he could share his knowledge of the American Association, where Hunton had played before. The Atlantic League season runs longer than the other independent leagues, so teams can pick up players whose seasons elsewhere have ended.
Hunton told them the best lefthanded starter in the American Association was Joel Kirsten. Somerset picked him up and he allowed one run and three hits in seven innings in his debut. A week later he won a playoff game for the Patriots.
When he succeeded, a new career was born. If you're a player looking for a job, call Jon. If you're an indy scout wanting some intel, Hunton is a good guy to know.
“Jon is very in tune with who is available and who is playing well. He has a bright future," said Chris Carminucci, Diamondbacks coordinator of independent leagues scouting.
Over the next few years, Hunton's playing career got in the way of his player procurement aspirations—the A's weren't asking for his scouting acumen. But along the way, Hunton did try to help friends land jobs in indy ball and winter ball.
And when he landed back in indy ball, the roots of a second career were already in place. Hunton did the job informally, then took on the title of assistant director of player personnel as he worked with Jodie, who had held the job before ascending to take over as manager. Eventually Hunton was given the director title. He and Jodie continue to work together to put together the club.
“Brett did this job and it was his title before me. Behind Sparky Lyle he was the guy signing all the guys. I knew we saw eye to eye. In indy ball that is very hard to find," Hunton said.
For now, Hunton will keep doing double duty, but when it's time to stop playing, Hunton doesn't have any question about what he'll do. He's already doing his dream job.
“I learned how to play in indy ball. That's why I'm so grateful for indy ball. I want to give back," Hunton said.