He has yet to sign a contract, yet to take his first steps as a professional and yet to experience the toll of the unique brand of intense fan and media scrutiny that is likely to meet his first extended slump, but already this much is clear about Hunter Greene: He may be the most intriguing, most important baseball prospect to arrive in years, if not ever.
Greene, the 17-year-old Los Angeles prep superstar taken by the Cincinnati Reds with the second overall pick of this week’s amateur draft, possesses the sort of electrifying ability one might expect of someone so young taken so high in the draft.
But Greene’s potential impact goes well beyond that. In many ways, he could be — as the headline of the Sports Illustrated cover story on him this spring put it, in all-caps — “THE STAR BASEBALL NEEDS,” and he is arguably the most marketable baseball prospect to come along since another former teenage SI cover boy, Bryce Harper, arrived in 2010, selected by the Washington Nationals with the first overall pick.
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) May 5, 2017
Like Harper, Greene has the requisite combination of generational talent, preternatural charisma and indefinable star power to become an iconic player of his era. Both have compelling family backstories: Harper’s father, Ron, was a Las Vegas steelworker who helped build some of the city’s iconic casinos; Greene’s father, Russell, is a renowned private investigator whose clients include Justin Bieber, Kanye West and the Kardashians.
But there are elements of Greene’s overall package that even Harper can’t match.
Most significantly, Greene is African American, and comes along at a time when the sport’s effort to retain a foothold in the black community has reached a crossroads: Despite a massive expenditure in money and manpower on the part of Major League Baseball, fewer than eight percent of big leaguers are African American, down from a peak of around 20 percent in the 1980s. (Royce Lewis, the Orange County prep shortstop taken with the first overall pick by the Minnesota Twins, also has an African American father.)
As a Little Leaguer, Greene attended MLB’s Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif. — one of the initiatives the sport has introduced in recent years in an attempt to grow the game in African American communities. When he was 13, he won an essay-writing contest, the prize for which was an audience with Jackie Robinson’s daughter, Sharon. He clearly understands and embraces the responsibility that comes with having his stature and platform.
“This is huge for our game,” Commissioner Rob Manfred, who announced each pick from the MLB Network studios in Secaucus, N.J., told reporters. “We hope these programs will continue to produce players like Hunter.”
But Greene has a chance to be a baseball trailblazer in another way that has nothing to do with race. As a legitimate two-way prospect — a right-handed pitcher whose fastball has been clocked at 102 mph and a slugging shortstop with elite power — he is in position, under the right development plan, to blow away the baseball norms that hold that top prospects and impact big-leaguers are either pitchers or hitters, but never (or at least not since the days of Babe Ruth) both.
(In this endeavor, he could be beaten to the history books. Louisville left-hander/first baseman Brendan McKay, another two-way star, is closer to being big-league-ready; he was taken fourth overall by Tampa Bay. Or perhaps by Shohei Otani, a legitimate two-way superstar known as “the Babe Ruth of Japan,” who is considering playing in America in the next two years.)
When he was asked by reporters Monday night, following his selection by the Reds, whether he considers himself first and foremost a pitcher or a shortstop, Greene replied, “All of the above.”
“On the mound, I consider myself a monster,” Greene told reporters, describing his different approaches to pitching and hitting. “I pound the zone. I get ahead. I stare guys in the eyes. I just like the whole competitive edge. At shortstop, showing my range and having smooth hands and footwork and firing across the diamond. Then hitting, just having good pitch selection and crushing balls, that’s me. …
“I still love doing both, and I think the ballclub is excited for getting two players for one. So I think they’re pretty pumped for that.”
That may not be exactly true. While the Reds have said they will have an open mind to allowing Greene to continue pursuing his hitting career, they made it clear they drafted him as a pitcher.
“Playing at the highest level is very difficult,” Reds General Manager Dick Williams told reporters following the selection of Greene, “and I wouldn’t want someone to focus on both to the detriment of one. We think Hunter’s got a great chance to be a major leaguer as a pitcher. We think the potential is there as a position player. I think at first we will focus on pitching, [but also] allow him to take at-bats. We’ll keep the door open to playing in the field. This is a very unique situation, something we’ve never been confronted with before.”
Greene hasn’t pitched since April, so assuming he signs quickly — with a bonus expected to be in the high nine figures — and is able to begin his professional career in a developmental league this summer, he will be brought along slowly. And even if his development as a pitcher goes perfectly, it is likely to be years before we see Greene in the major leagues. Only five pitchers this century, most recently the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Jose Urias last season, have appeared in a big league game as a teenager.
But if and when he arrives, on a pitcher’s mound or in a batter’s box — or perhaps in both — Greene is likely to have an immediate impact on the sport, one that will rise in direct proportion to how well he performs on the field. Already, before his pro career has even begun, it is safe to say baseball has never seen a prospect like him.
Fancy Stats: This year’s Yankees are a modern-day Murderers’ Row