SEE ALSO: Extended Spring Coverage
TEMPE, Ariz.—While the sports world was focused on the NFL draft late last month, two former football players were plying their new trades in relative anonymity.
Brandon Marsh and Torii Hunter Jr. were busy with early morning workouts and an intrasquad game on a camp day for the Angels extended spring training team. There were no cheering fans, no autograph hounds, not even any pro scouts watching the action.
The two young outfielders, both selected by the Angels in the 2016 draft, are fine with biding time in extended spring until they are assigned to a club, most likely short-season Orem of the Rookie-level Pioneer League in mid-June.
Marsh, 19, is the youngest, and certainly the higher-regarded prospect of the two. He is the Angels’ No. 4 prospect, and a second-round pick last June from Buford (Ga.) High, where he starred in football and baseball. His signing was delayed after a physical exam revealed a stress fracture in his lower back, and then the Angels were cautious, holding him out of games in the summer and then the instructional league.
But it was a frustrating time for Marsh, who didn’t feel any pain from the injury.
“I couldn’t feel anything in my back, so that was the painful part,” said Marsh, who was committed to play baseball at Kennesaw State and also planned to walk on to the football team. “Not being able to play when I knew I could . . . It was very stressful but I’m very glad to be out here now with everyone.”
Although he didn’t play in his first pro stint, Marsh showed no rust this spring and impressed scouts, who say he is a premium athlete with a strong, physical build, who projects as a major league regular with a good chance to hit. He currently sports two plus tools with his arm and speed.
“He’s a natural player,” AZL Angels hitting coach Ray Olmedo said. “He can do anything he wants and he’s always positive.”
Hunter, 21, grew up around the game, with his famous father Torii having played 19 big league seasons, including five with the Angels. But the Notre Dame product spent more time playing football than baseball in college, and thus is less refined than the younger Marsh.
“We’re just trying to get him reps,” said AZL Angels manager Dave Stapleton, who is part of the staff running the Angels extended spring training program. “More games, more at-bats, baserunning . . . the whole part of the game. It’s just trying to get him thinking about baseball. He’s got to learn how to bunt, to know when to bunt, and as far as playing the outfield how to move.”
Hunter could have returned to Notre Dame for another year of football. But a couple of tough injuries convinced Hunter to give up the gridiron and instead try pro baseball, signing with the Angels for an overslot $100,000 bonus after being selected in the 23rd round last June.
“All signs led to baseball, so I’m here now,” said Hunter, whose brother Mondrashik Hunter, a defensive back at Arkansas State, was not drafted last month.
On the diamond, Hunter is still very raw, trying to turn all that athleticism into baseball skill. His swing is a bit stiff, but it’s not a long swing that needs to be reworked. In a recent game, his plus speed didn’t show on his times to first base but he flew around the bases on a ball he drove over the right fielder’s head for a triple.
After playing football for so many years and getting accustomed to the cheers of fans, Marsh and Hunter agree that self-motivation is the key to getting through this early phase of their baseball careers.
“It’s definitely a lot tougher when there’s nobody out here cheering for you,” Hunter said. “You’ve got to go into a mentality like I’ve got to work on something today . . . I’ve got to get better . . . You’ve got to attack it EVERY day … Nothing’s given to me, I’ve got to take it for myself.”
Marsh tries to generate the same level of energy in baseball as he did when playing football, using a little trick to help rev himself up.
“There’s no better feeling (in football) than the Friday Night lights,” Marsh said. “Just the energy running out through the banner (before each game). I take that energy like I had (from running) through the banner when I run past the foul line to go out to my position every inning.”
Marsh and Hunter are both eager to get on with the next phase of their baseball careers, hopefully getting back in front of fans before long.
“I was never told it was going to be a luxurious lifestyle where we’re at right now,” Marsh said, “but I didn’t know it was going to be like this . . . I’ve always had a crowd, a bunch of fans cheering everyone on and it’s a lot different here. But I’m getting used to it and I’m starting to like it.”
Marsh added, with a grin, “Hopefully I don’t have to like it too much longer.”