"I don't want to go anywhere. Don't trade me away. That's all I am asking," Hunter says with a smile, ratcheting up his voice an octave for wistful effect. "I don't want to leave. I like Baltimore. I like the city. This is a good fit. The guys are good and they bring in people that care."
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Ed Smith Stadium, 2700 12th Street, Sarasota, FL 34237, USA
No question Hunter cares.
As goofy as he can be off the field, he's the opposite on it, a fierce competitor who, like most young pitchers, sometimes can be his worst enemy.
"Pretty much he needs to know he is good enough to pitch here. Tommy's got plenty of enough stuff," says Orioles pitching coach Rick Adair. "Sometimes, I don't know if he realizes it or not. And he tries to throw it 100 [mph] instead of throwing it 94 [mph] and down. But he's done good."
The Orioles loved his arm, his experience — he started a World Series game for the Rangers in 2010 at age 24 — and his personality. Oh, how they loved infusing his quick-witted, nothing-is-sacred persona into a reserved clubhouse two years ago.
Case in point: On Sunday morning, Hunter donned a Team Mexico baseball cap and was waiting mischievously for the arrival of Mexico native and Orioles reliever Luis Ayala, who had strutted about when Mexico beat the United States earlier this week in the World Baseball Classic.
But on Saturday night Mexico was eliminated from the tournament, and Hunter was having some fun at his Mexican teammates' expense Sunday morning. He walked up to native Mexican Miguel Gonzalez, embraced him and placed Gonzalez's head on his shoulder, telling Gonzalez it was OK to weep. Gonzalez instead let out a hearty laugh.
"I think we all saw that the first day he got here. We just didn't have — at that time — a lot of personality, and Tommy provides that daily. To say the least," Adair said. "He's been here since August 2011 and he's now one of our guys."
He could, theoretically, be someone else's by the end of spring.
Hunter, who turns 27 in July, does not have minor league options remaining, meaning if he does not make the team out of spring he must be placed on waivers before the Orioles can send him to Triple-A Norfolk.
The industry consensus is Hunter won't get through waivers without being claimed, especially with teams like the Minnesota Twins, Colorado Rockies and Pittsburgh Pirates, among others, seemingly always on the prowl for pitching.
Technically, Hunter is in contention for a rotation spot with the Orioles, but realistically several starters would have to be injured for him to crack the top five. So that really leaves two possibilities this April: He'll either be in the Orioles' bullpen or be dealt to another team.
"It's a no-lose situation for him, except he wouldn't be part of our team," says manager Buck Showalter, who was told that Hunter stressed his interest in remaining an Oriole. "I like when people like what's going on here. It's no reflection of where he has been. It's just about the present, where he is now."
Hunter made 20 starts for the Orioles in 2012, going 4-8 with a 5.71 ERA. He gave up a horrific 30 homers in 116 2/3 innings as a starter, leading to his demotion, both to the bullpen and the minors.
"Nobody wants to lose a job or get demoted. Nobody likes to do that," Hunter said. "But you deal with it and you move on and you try to succeed at the role you are given."
As a reliever, he was 3-0 with a 3.71 ERA in 13 games, yielding two homers. Dig deeper into his numbers and it's obvious where he fits best with the 2013 Orioles.
After being recalled from the minors in September, Hunter allowed just one run in 10 regular-season relief outings, giving up 12 hits and two walks while posting a 0.71 ERA and fanning 12 batters in 12 2/3 innings. He also threw 1 1/3 scoreless innings in the playoffs.
Equally important, his fastball, which averaged 91.6 mph last season according to fangraphs.com, was consistently in the 96 to 99 range out of the bullpen in September. His strikeout rate per nine innings as a starter was 4.71; it jumped to 8.47 as a reliever.
"I have no explanation. Maybe it is the fact that it is one inning, two innings. I don't know," Hunter said about his significant increase in velocity as a reliever. "Every once and a while during a start you'll see it. You won't see it like you did last year, upward to the high 90s. That's not going to happen [during starts], but there are flashes every once and a while."
Orioles catcher Matt Wieters said he thinks Hunter can pitch in various roles for the club — but his ability and mentality fits perfectly in the bullpen.
"I think you can see how much fire he has. I think that's what allows him to do that," Wieters said of Hunter succeeding in relief. "It's something where as a starter you know you are going to have to pace yourself. But once he went to the 'pen he said he was going to give everything he had for his team to be able to win a game. You get some adrenaline running and some want-to and you can do some pretty impressive things."
Hunter has been a starter for most of his career, and says he'll always see himself in that role. But his priority is making the Orioles and helping them return to the playoffs, no matter the role.
"I'm still going to come to the baseball field every day," said Hunter, who has allowed three runs on seven hits in 5 2/3 relief innings this spring. "It is what it is. I don't really have any preference anymore."
His primary wish is to stay in Baltimore — something his teammates are hoping for as well.
"Tommy's got a lot of energy and everyone in this clubhouse knows that. But the thing about him is he wants to get better and he wants to have fun. And that's what you respect as a teammate and a friend," Wieters said. "You can work to get better, but he is going to have a good time doing it. And so he's the kind of guy that can make everybody else's attitude on the field go in the right direction."