By JOEL COLEMAN
Hunter Renfroe is on the cusp of fulfilling his big league dream. The former Mississippi State star is getting another taste of the majors this spring as a non-roster invitee to spring training with the San Diego Padres for the second-straight season. Yet even as the five-tool outfielder has vaulted himself through the San Diego system since wrapping up his MSU career in 2013, Renfroe says he hasn’t forgotten where he blossomed into the player he is today.
“I spent a lot of time (in Starkville) from 2010 to 2013 and really, after that too when I come back to visit,” Renfroe said earlier this month after throwing out the first pitch for MSU baseball’s preseason pep rally, Cowbell Yell. “I look back on my time (at MSU) basically every day. I enjoyed my time here, probably more than others. I had a great time here on the field and off the field.
“I look back on my time here and it was a great rollercoaster ride from my freshman year to my junior year and playing for the (College World Series) championship.”
In his time with the Bulldogs, Renfroe quickly went from high school standout to a can’t-miss MLB prospect. After developing in his first two seasons at Mississippi State, the Crystal Springs native achieved almost rockstar status in Starkville as he helped MSU to a national runner-up finish in 2013, batting .345 with 16 homers and 65 RBIs.
The Padres liked what they saw in 2013 and took Renfroe in the first round of the MLB Draft. Renfroe chose to forego his senior year at MSU to begin his professional career, but said it was a strange transition going from the passionate ballparks in college to the not-so-rambunctious settings of Minor League Baseball.
“It was very different,” Renfroe said. “I went from the College World Series, having 15-plus thousand people in the stands, to Eugene, Oregon and having 20 guys in the stands. I was playing with a bunch of high school guys that really didn’t have a clue of what their potential was and how to really project it. It was a lot different than playing with the guys that knew what they were doing here under (MSU head coach John) Cohen.”
Even as he adapted to his new normal, Renfroe continued to find success. At two different stops in his first professional season, he combined to hit .271 with six homers and 25 RBIs. In 2014, between A and AA, Renfroe batted .267 with 21 homers and 75 RBIs.
As Renfroe began to display the promise that San Diego had long seen, the Padres invited Renfroe to Major League spring training prior to the 2015 season.
“It was a big-time learning experience,” Renfroe said. “It was my first time being around big-name guys in the clubhouse. You get to learn from those guys and how to go about the game the right way and how to encourage other players.”
Renfroe tried to play it cool, but he said it was tough finally getting the chance to play alongside many of the stars he’d long looked up to.
“You try not to be too nervous or too excited, but it’s impossible,” Renfroe said. “You grew up watching these guys and grew up dreaming about being on that stage one day then you go in there and you’re in front of a Justin Upton or a Matt Kemp or others.”
Renfroe rode his first MLB experience to another big year in the minors. In 2015 between AA and AAA, Renfroe hit .272 with 20 homers and 78 RBIs.
On the heels of another great season, now Renfroe gets another opportunity to showcase his skills on the highest of levels. Getting to hang around the big league team for a second time has made Renfroe hungrier than ever to get to the big show. Still, he knows there is only so much he can do.
“You can look forward to the future and what it might hold, but you never actually know until you get going and then, at the end of spring training, they’ll tell you where you’re going to be,” Renfroe said. “That’s the bottom line.
“I always want to be the best player on the field and earn a position. So hopefully this year, I’ll get a shot. If not, I’ll be there next year.”
When Renfroe finally gets called up to the majors, he’ll become the third member of MSU’s 2013 College World Series team to play Major League Baseball, joining pitchers Kendall Graveman and Jacob Lindgren. That could happen as soon as this year’s opening day.
For now, Renfroe is just planning on taking things one day at the time. Once again, he’s suiting up in his Padres jersey. This time, he knows he’s closer than ever before to being a big leaguer so he can’t help but feel fortunate and optimistic.
“There’s not very many guys that get to do this,” Renfroe said. “I’m very blessed to get to be a part of that and be able to experience it and maybe be a part of a great World Series team. I hope one day I can go, not just to spring training, but be there with the big dogs on opening day. That’s always a goal. You want to go out there and work as hard as you possibly can to be on the big league team and that’s what I hope happens.”