September 23, 2007

Hunter's Home Farewell

Saturday afternoon was the inaugural Stick and Ball Guy Convention, so I headed downtown for some breakfast at Hubert's before taking in the Twins-White Sox game at the Metrodome with a dozen other citizens of SBG Nation. A good time was had by all despite the fact that we saw Scott Baker exit early with an injury, Boof Bonser cough up five runs in relief, and Nick Punto go 0-for-4 with three strikeouts in an 8-3 loss that dropped the Twins to 75-79.

While ugly, the game was probably fitting given the group's collective disappointment and frustration. Will Young and Kyle Eliason booed Punto several dozen times, Bonser's stock continued to plummet, Jim Thome's 504th career homer was one of the cheapest that you'll ever see, Darin Erstad hit a ball into the upper deck as SBG speculated that he'll be Torii Hunter's replacement next year, and we got to see a lineup that featured Punto, Chris Heintz, Luis Rodriguez, and Jason Tyner.

If we weren't going to see a good game, it was certainly the right kind of bad game. Of course, Sunday afternoon's game would have been slightly more enjoyable, with Kevin Slowey setting a career-high by striking out nine batters over seven innings of one-run ball, Brian Buscher and Alexi Casilla making a rare appearance in the same lineup together, and Hunter playing what seems likely to be the final home game of his Twins career.

Twins fans are understandably reluctant to give up hope when it comes to Hunter potentially returning, but the odds seem pretty long at this point. He spent most of the season publicly campaigning for the Twins to open negotiations with him and then said that he wasn't interested in negotiating during the season once they did. Hunter is clearly interested in hitting the open market and once that happens it'll become obvious that the Twins aren't in a position to make anything close to the best offer.

Seeing his Twins career wind down is sad, but the fact that Hunter turned down a chance to remain in Minnesota makes it a little easier to take. I don't think Hunter handled his pending free agency very well publicly, but I don't blame him one bit for wanting to maximize his earning potential. Still, at the end of the day he's choosing money over remaining with the Twins. Rather than take $45 or maybe even $60 million to stay in Minnesota, he'll likely be getting $75 or $90 million to leave.

That's obviously a huge difference, but if Hunter truly had his heart set on staying with the Twins he could do so while still making a huge amount of money. I'm of the opinion that the difference between $45 or $60 million and $75 or $90 million is a lot smaller than it looks, but a) that's easy for me to say when I'll never come close to making that type of money, and b) I have no idea whether or not Hunter actually wants to stay with the Twins regardless of the money involved.

If he does, then my guess is that he'll regret leaving over money. However, it's very possible that he's simply ready to move on or at least willing to move on enough that he values maximizing his salary over remaining in Minnesota, in which case my only beef is with the way he tried to spin the situation in the media. I'd love to see Hunter return, but committing $75 or $90 million to a 32-year-old center fielder with a .271/.325/.470 career hitting line just isn't something that makes sense of the Twins.

Hunter has been the Twins' second-best player this season and if he leaves it will come following what is arguably the most-valuable season of his nine-year career. He's been so good, in fact, that by procrastinating with my "Top 40 Minnesota Twins" series I've given Hunter enough time to move up several spots. You'll have to wait a while to find out exactly where he ends up in the rankings, but for now suffice it to say that he's one of the elite players in team history.

If he leaves, Hunter will make what's already a weak offense significantly weaker while opening up a huge hole in center field that the organization has no strong internal options to fill. Outside of the organization there are plenty of quality options to replace him, which I'll discuss in the coming weeks, but I'm nervous about the Twins' ability to identify and pursue those options given their reluctance to trade young pitching for young hitting and their frustrating preference for washed-up veterans.

The thought of Erstad or Tyner or Lew Ford or Denard Span attempting to fill Hunter's shoes is a scary one, but faults and all the Twins should be able to uncover a better solution. If they can't, then their problems go far beyond what happens with Hunter. Replacing him is just one of several key decisions that the Twins will have to make soon and they'll need to avoid some of their recent mistakes in order to begin another success cycle like the one that Hunter was a big part of from 2001-2006.

Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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