Torii Hunter's Contract With Minnesota is Bad, but Not the End of the World
It was the top of the seventh. Game 2 of the 2006 American League Divisional Series between the Minnesota Twins and the Oakland Athletics.
My dad had taken me out of class that day so we could sit in the 23rd row of the upper deck in left field of the Metrodome. I can still remember watching Mark Kotsay walk up to the plate. Jason Kendall was on first base with two outs. According to Baseball Reference, the Twins' win expectancy was at 55 percent.
Kotsay hit a sinking line-drive to center field. The perennial Gold-Glove winner, Torii Hunter, made a diving attempt for the ball. Instead of doing what he had done so often in the past and making a highlight-reel catch, Hunter missed the ball. It rolled all the way to the wall. Kendall and Kotsay both crossed home, putting the A's on top, 4-2, and shifting the win odds to 78 percent in favor of Oakland. My legs were numb.
The A's won the game, 5-2, and ended up sweeping the Twins when the series moved to Oakland. The Twins' magical season, which saw them take home the MVP, Cy Young and batting titles, was over.
Just over a year later, so was Hunter's tenure with the Twins. Hunter was about to enter his age-32 season, his defense had started to decline, and the Los Angeles Angels offered him some rich contract the Twins couldn't hope to match. The team that drafted Hunter in the first round 14 years prior smartly let the face of the franchise walk away.
Seven years, 139 Hunter home runs, and four straight 90-loss Twins seasons later, the two are reunited. Torii, a 39-year-old outfielder without much range; the Twins, a team rebuilding with a wave of talented youth on the way.
You're not going to find a lot of people saying that Hunter is worth the $10.5 million the Twins are reportedly paying him. I certainly won't be one of them. There's no way that Hunter could be worth that during a season in which he will turn 40.
I'm not going to tell you why the contract is dumb, although, from a value standpoint, it is. Instead, I'm going to show why, despite its short-comings, it's really not the end of the world.
The Prospects From Whom He's Taking the At-Bats Aren't Ready Yet
One of the biggest arguments against Hunter that I saw last night was that his signing takes away plate appearances from younger players. While that's technically true, it's a flawed argument.
Let's look at the Twins outfield right now. Oswaldo Arcia would, according to KSTP's Darren Wolfson, move to left field to accommodate Hunter's arrival. He's still going to be an every-day guy. No time lost here.
Then there's Aaron Hicks. He has been given the starting job in center each of the past two seasons, only to lose it both times. The only person costing Hicks chances right now is himself and his .274 slugging percentage.
The next man on the totem pole for Opening Day 2015 is Jordan Schafer. Schafer is 28 and, despite playing well after being acquired by the Twins from the Braves last year, he has never posted a WAR higher than 1.0. He's a role player who would only backtrack if his sample size were expanded too much.
That's when you get to the prospects. Byron Buxton has played one game at Double-A and is not on the 40-man roster. He's not ready yet.
Eddie Rosario had a sick Arizona Fall League. Swoon City. He also had a .277 on-base percentage at Double-A this year. That could mostly be due to a sluggish start following a 50-game drug suspension, but it still shows that Rosario most likely won't be ready for a roster spot on Opening Day.
After those guys, you have Maximillion Kepler. Okay, so he goes by Max, but his birth name from his hometown of Berlin, Germany, is Maximillian. Embrace that greatness, homes. Even with this kick-butt name, Kepler has never played above High-A ball. Again, this is not a guy from whom Hunter will take plate appearances.
The guy who is hurt most by this signing may actually be Kennys Vargas. Vargas is in line to get the lion's share of time in the designated hitter slot. This is where Hunter's diminished defense comes into play.
In 2014, Hunter had a defensive runs saved rating of -24.7. His lowest rating prior to that season was his -10.5 defensive runs saved in 2013.
Hunter's 2014 number was the worst number in all of baseball among the 16 right fielders that played enough innings to qualify. The second worst guy was David Murphy, who was at -15.5. That is a significant gap, and it really shows how far Torii has fallen.
The Twins' outfield defense was reprehensibly bad in 2014. They had several lineups in which the entire outfield was comprised of converted infielders. The guy who played the most games in center, Danny Santana, is a shortstop.
Hunter will not help this defense. If the Twins want to get a plus-outfielder at one of the corners for a game, they will either have to bench him, bench Arcia, or have one of them work as the designated hitter. That keeps either Vargas or Joe Mauer out of the line-up. It also would prevent the Twins from using their designated hitter position on Josmil Pinto, as his defense will probably prevent him from catching too often. That's where I start to get a bit leery about the signing, outside of the money.
If the Twins use the same strategy as the Tigers did last year, the playing-time concern won't be too great. Hunter only started the game as the designated hitter seven times and was the right fielder in all other starts. Hunter in the outfield does not cut off many younger players; Hunter at designated hitter does. If he stays in the outfield (bad defense and all), then his roster spot is easier to swallow.
It's Only a One-Year Contract
Tuesday, I got all in a tizzy about the Mariners' signing of Nelson Cruz. The biggest reason I disliked that contract was that it was for four years, and it really hand-cuffed the Mariners. Hunter's contract with the Twins does not do that.
In 2016, the odds that Rosario and Buxton are ready to take over in the outfield are far higher. But, in all likelihood, Hunter will not still be with the team to act as a road block. The following tweet summed that up pretty well:
Torii Hunter is a one-year bridge to Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton, etc. Nothing more, nothing less.— Brandon Warne (@Brandon_Warne) December 3, 2014
If Hunter's performance drops off significantly in 2015, you let him walk after the season, and your hands are completely clean of the situation. If his performance stays near where it was last year, you're actually getting a guy that is still an okay hitter.
In his final year with the Tigers, Hunter hit .286/.319/.446 with a .335 wOBA. On a Twins team that finished seventh in runs scored in 2014, Hunter would have ranked 3rd in batting average, 10th in on-base percentage, 4th in slugging percentage, and 3rd in wOBA among batters with at least 100 plate appearances.
Outside of his on-base percentage, Hunter is an improvement over a lot of guys that had a significant number of plate appearances last year. The problem is that's based on his 2014 performance, and we're talking about 2015.
Each of the past three seasons, Hunter's wOBA has fallen by at least 10 points (to .335 in 2014 from .356 in 2012). If it were to do the same again (as his Steamer projection says), he would have a .325 wOBA. That's still better than both Schafer and Hicks in 2014, with only Arcia as a legitimate outfielder ahead of Hunter.
Torii Hunter, at least offensively, is still a big-league-caliber player at the age of 39. If he can come to the team, provide any type of positive influence on guys like Hicks, Arcia and others, then his value is only amplified.
At the end of the day, there's no way Hunter actually ends up being worth the $10.5 million. The Twins overpaid, and it's as simple as that. But the Hunter signing will not set the Twins as a whole back too drastically. The young guys will still play, and Hunter can provide something with his bat.
By signing with the Twins, Hunter assures he will never win a World Series. It's possible that that fateful 2006 was his best chance at such a run. But with one mis-timed dive, those chances disappeared.
With this homecoming, Hunter gets a chance to give Twins fans some closure. He can wrap up his career where it started as that 1993 first-round draft pick. He does all of this without crippling the team beyond 2015. This contract may not be the greatest thing, but it's far from the end of the world. And at the end of the day, it's going to be pretty darn cool to see Hunter wearing that stylized TC logo one last time.