October 15, 2002
That's Torii with Two Eyes
"I'm not sure when we will talk, or how soon, but I'm willing to talk now." - Twins CF Torii Hunter on a possible contract extension.
One of the negative aspects of having a successful team, particularly a successful, young team, is that players start to want/deserve big raises in salary.
Torii Hunter was the Twins' best player in 2002.
He plays a key defensive position (perhaps the key position) and he plays it very well.
He hits for a good average.
He hits for power.
He steals bases.
The only thing he doesn't do very well is draw walks, but I guess you can't have everything.
If the Twins were the Yankees and they had a $120 million dollar payroll or even if they were the Anaheim Angels and they had a $65 million dollar payroll, signing Hunter to a long-term deal would be a no-brainer.
But the Twins are the Twins and their payroll looks like it will be in the $40 million dollar range for the forseeable future, which means they have to make incredibly smart decisions when it comes to paying large amounts of money to players.
From what I have read, the starting point for a possible deal is approximately $30 million dollars over 4 seasons.
This seems, to me at least, like a very conservative estimate.
Darin Erstad signed a 4 year deal for $32 million dollars less than 2 months ago, and while he is a great defensive centerfielder, he isn't even in the same league as Torii offensively.
So let's assume that a possible deal would be closer to 4 years and $35-$40 million.
First of all, the length of the contract, 4 seasons, is a very good one for the Twins.
Hunter just completed his "age 26" season, meaning he was 26 years old for the majority of the 2002 baseball season.
That also means that he is in the middle of his "peak" years as a baseball player.
A player's peak (his best performance) usually occurs during his mid-to-late twenties.
Signing a player to a long term contract that takes him past his early thirties is often a huge mistake, particularly for a team with a very low payroll and particularly for a player that relies on his speed and athletic ability to play his defensive position.
But a 4 year deal would cover his age 27, 28, 29 and 30 seasons, which is absolutely perfect as far as the Twins are concerned.
So, the length of the contract, assuming it is for 4 seasons, is perfect for the Twins.
Which leaves two important issues in deciding whether or not this deal is a good one.
1) What will Torii Hunter's level of performance be for those 4 seasons.
2) Is that level of performance worth the money they will be paying him.
Unless you consider yourself a Miss Cleo type, it is going to be pretty difficult to answer #1.
However, by looking at his age and his performance so far, a pretty good idea of his future performance can be established.
As I said before, Hunter is just entering his peak years, so his performance should be expected to go up or stabalize, but not go down (barring injuries, of course).
Here are Torii's relevant hitting stats in his career:
A couple of notes first...
His 2001 and 2002 stats are from full seasons with the Twins and are unchanged.
His 1999 and 2000 seasons are from partial seasons with the Twins and have been prorated to match the same amounts of playing time as 2001 and 2002.
Year ABs PAs .AVG .OBP .SLG HR DB T BB
1999 557 611 .255 .309 .380 13 25 3 37
2000 571 608 .280 .318 .408 10 24 9 31
2001 564 603 .261 .306 .479 27 32 5 29
2002 561 604 .289 .334 .524 29 37 4 35
Aside from the amount of walks he draws, Torii Hunter has had almost the prototypical "career path."
His power, both in doubles and home runs, has increased throughout his MLB career as he goes from young, developing player to an established player in the beginning of his peak.
His average has gone back and forth slightly, but has maintained the same basic level (.260-.280) throughout.
If Torii continues along the typical career path, as he has so far, he will likely experience similar seasons as he had in 2002 during the next several years, with perhaps one or two seasons (likely next year and 2004) that would be slightly improved over 2002.
But let's just say, for the sake of simplicity, that Torii puts up 4 seasons of .280/.325/.500 (which is slightly worse than he did this season).
Is that worth $8 million a year to a team with a $40 million dollar payroll?
Ah, but before we answer that...
Some of you may be saying, "Excuse me, Mr. Walks and Homers, aren't you forgetting about a little thing called defense?!"
Ah yes, defense.
Actually, for a guy who considers himself a big fan of the Billy Beane style of offense (walks, on-base%, homers, etc) I am a pretty big believer in having good defense, at least at key positions.
Last season, Torii Hunter had one of the best defensive years that a centerfielder has had in a long time.
He ran down everything that got hit into the air at The Metrodome and, with the Twins' flyball pitching staff, there was a lot to run down.
He was fast, athletic and fearless, with good instincts, which is the recipe for a perfect centerfielder.
This year however, something was a little "off."
Torii had a lot of balls bounce off the end of his glove and even more balls go shooting a foot or two past him and into the gaps.
He is definitely still a very good defensive centerfielder, capable of making some wonderful plays, but I think he is slightly slower and/or less athletic in the field, possibly because he bulked up a little bit or maybe because of a minor injury or two that is limiting his mobility slightly.
In either case, it is a little worrisome when a great defensive player declines noticeably from one year to the next.
Here are his defensive stats from the last 2 years:
Year ZnRt RngF
2001 .904 3.29
2002 .897 2.70
Now, the difference between making 3.29 plays per game (which is what Range Factor measures) and 2.70 plays per game might not seem like a lot, but over the course a of 162 game season, that is a difference of nearly 100 outs, which is a huge amount.
But the amount of plays a fielder makes is dependent a lot upon the flyball-groundball nature of the pitching staff.
It is very possible that the 2002 Twins pitchers did not allow as many flyballs to be hit into centerfield, in which case Hunter would obviously make less plays out there.
However, Zone Rating only accounts for the balls that are hit into his zone (centerfield).
If 5 balls are hit into Hunter's "zone" and he catches all 5, he has a 1.000 ZR, if he catches 4, he has a .800 ZR...it is just like a batting average.
So, not only did Hunter make significantly fewer plays than he did last season, he made less plays on the balls that were hit into his zone than he did last year.
Like I said, he is still a very good defensive CF, but he didn't play at the same level that he did in 2001.
Okay, so what do we have?
A guy who just finished his age 26 season.
He has shown significant improvement each of the last 4 seasons offensively, adding power each season.
He has not shown any improvement as far as plate discipline goes, however.
He had an outstanding defensive season in 2001, but regressed a small, but significant amount in 2002.
Even with the regression, he was still an upper level defensive centerfielder.
The 3 main issues that I have touched upon in regard to a possible contract for Hunter are:
1) The length of the deal.
2) The cost of the deal.
3) Hunter's performance during the deal.
I already said that I think the length of the deal, assuming it is for 4 years, is the best possible scenario for the Twins.
They get him for his 27, 28, 29 and 30 seasons, which are the middle and end of his peak years.
Okay, so length of the deal = GOOD.
We just finished looking at what I think Hunter's performance over the next 4 seasons is likely to look like.
I would guess that, as a whole, his next 4 years will be slightly less than his performance this season, with one or maybe two of the 4 years being significantly better (his "career year").
Defensively, his decline from 2001 to 2002 scares me a little bit.
26 year old centerfielders don't usually get better as they age, especially when they are showing signs of getting worse.
But Hunter is still near the top of the list of defensive CFs.
I would expect him to continue to be in the upper level of CFs for at least the next couple of seasons and, at worst, regress to being an average CF at the very end of the contract.
So, Hunter's expected performance during the 4-year deal = GOOD.
Which brings us to the final component, the money.
Sometimes I wish I was a fan of the Yankees, just because it would be a whole lot easier deciding who to re-sign when you have $120 million to spend each year.
But while playing with a tight budget can be a pain in the butt, it is also an interesting challenge.
I believe that in the current market for players, signing a top of the line centerfielder for $8 million dollars a season is perfectly acceptable, even with such a small budget.
By signing Hunter for the next 4 seasons, the Twins won't have to worry about (arguably) the most important defensive position on the field and they can be confident that they have one-ninth of their lineup, and more important a middle of the order, right handed, power threat, in place.
Okay, so cost of the deal = GOOD.
Let's get Hunter signed.
I think 4 years at $35 million sounds pretty fair for both sides.
Cross "centerfielder" and "#5 hitter" off of the list of things to worry about for the next half decade, and let's move on to the things that need worrying about...
I'll save my thoughts on those things for another day (it'll give all you guys something to look forward to!).
In the near future I am planning on writing an article about my thoughts on the future of the entire Twins team.
So, if you thought my opinions regarding Hunter were long, just wait until I start thinking about the other 24/25ths of the roster!