October 10, 2006

Bringing Back Hunter

As expected, the Twins exercised Torii Hunter's $12 million option for 2007 yesterday.

I've long been of the opinion that the Twins would have been smart to trade Hunter at some point over the past couple seasons and there's little reason to think he'll be worth 20 percent of the team's payroll in 2007, but that doesn't necessarily mean picking up his option is a major mistake. In fact, it's tough to call any one-year commitment to a good player a huge blunder, because there simply isn't much room for regretting the decision financially.

Would the Twins have been better off cashing Hunter in for a major league-ready prospect or two while clearing his salary off the books and better allocating it? Yes. Would they have been better off declining his option and taking their chances on whichever veteran center fielder falls into their price range from a free-agent class that includes Jim Edmonds, Gary Matthews Jr., Kenny Lofton, Dave Roberts, Juan Pierre, and Jay Payton? Perhaps.

A favorable scenario post-Hunter would have involved signing someone like Lofton to a one-year deal worth around $4 million. Hunter's option included a $2 million buyout that was going to him either way, which means the Twins decided to pay him an additional $10 million to stick around for one more year. In that sense, they decided the certainty in going into the winter without needing a starting center fielder and the difference between Hunter and Lofton is worth about $6 million.

The real "difference" is probably worth more like $3 million, but that wasn't actually a choice. I think the vast majority of Twins fans overestimate how much better Hunter is than the various Lofton-like center fielders who figure to be available and I probably would have rolled the dice by letting Hunter leave, but Terry Ryan choosing the risk-averse option is expected and in no way disastrous. At worst, the Twins wasted a few million bucks and delayed their search for a new center fielder by exactly one year.

Given the choice between overpaying Hunter in 2007 and trying to find something else that works, I'd have chosen the latter. However, given the choice between overpaying Hunter in 2007 and signing him to a long-term deal, I'll take the one-year commitment every time. While many Twins fans no doubt want to see Hunter retire in Minnesota and Hunter himself has said repeatedly that he wants to be around when the new ballpark opens in 2010, locking him up through his mid-30s could be disastrous.

Unless Hunter agrees to a sizable paycut in exchange for sticking around, it would be a major mistake to lock the team into spending 15-20 percent of what is already a limited payroll on an oft-injured center fielder on the wrong side of 30 who has shown signs of serious decline defensively. In general, long-term contracts tend to work out poorly for the team that hands them out. In cases like this, when health and performance are both issues, the odds are really stacked against it ending well.

In the wake of the disappointing ALDS loss to Oakland, I heard from a surprising number of fans who felt Hunter's back-breaking misplay in Game 2 was reason enough for the team to decline his option. While I've chronicled Hunter's rapid defensive decline for months here, I also think it's silly to base any sort of evaluation or decision on one play (however horrible and misguided it may have been). Playing a single into a homer was merely an example of his decline, not the evidence of its existence.

Hunter's defense had gone downhill well before he tried to catch a liner off Mark Kotsay's bat, although the botched catch seems to have opened a few eyes to the idea that Hunter is not the center fielder he once was. Despite Hunter turning 31 years old in July and dealing with multiple foot injuries recently, that notion had been a difficult sell prior to the ALDS. One minute his defense was a relative non-issue and the next minute it's seen by some as reason to let him go.

While the public perception of Hunter's defense is at an all-time low, his second-half power surge has fans thinking he's made significant progress at the plate. I even had someone tell me the other day that "Hunter's hitting is so good now" that he could move to a corner-outfield spot and retain his value. Much like one missed diving catch on the season's biggest stage, establishing a new career-high in homers can change a lot of opinions.

Meanwhile, lost in the 31 homers is that Hunter's overall offensive production was right in line with the rest of his career:

YEAR      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
2002 .289 .334 .524 .858
2003 .250 .312 .451 .763
2004 .271 .330 .475 .805
2005 .269 .337 .452 .789
2006 .278 .336 .490 .826

Hunter's last five seasons have been remarkably consistent for someone who's seemingly so streaky. The exact numbers fluctuate a bit because that's how baseball is and there are stretches of increased power or plate discipline involved, but the end result is that Hunter has established himself as more or less a .275/.335/.475 hitter capable of 25-30 homers in a full season. Over the past three years, Hunter has batted .273/.334/.475 and he's a career .269/.323/.463 hitter in 1,074 big-league games.

Major-league center fielders hit a combined .269/.338/.429 this season, which means Hunter is almost exactly "average" in terms of both batting average and on-base percentage. His power puts him safely in the "above-average" category overall, but certainly not in the elite class reserved for guys like Carlos Beltran, Grady Sizemore, and Andruw Jones. How Hunter fits into the all-around picture depends on what you think of his defense at this point, but he's clearly among the top half of the position.

The idea that he'd be great in a corner spot runs into a problem, because corner outfielders combined to bat .276/.351/.446 this season. That means Hunter's power would be slightly above average for the position, but he'd give those gains back by being below average in on-base percentage. Toss in what would probably be outstanding defense and he'd certainly be an above-average left or right fielder, but just as certainly not be worth anything close to $12 million per season.

As long as the Twins avoid offering Hunter a multi-year deal at this price, I have no problem bringing him back in 2007. They're overpaying with money that could be used to upgrade the offense elsewhere or bring in a starting pitcher, but it's not the end of the world. If Hunter's unproductive or injured, the deal isn't an albatross. If he's productive and healthy but the team falls out of contention, he can be traded. If he's productive and healthy while the team contends, no one will care about wasting a little cash.

With that said, I'm hopeful that Hunter's is the last option the Twins pick up for 2007, because Carlos Silva's $4.3 million pricetag isn't looking so good.

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