Monday, June 26, 2006

Trading Torii

The identity of the early 2000’s Twins was Torii Hunter. The young Twins were known for their defense and hustle and the Gold Gloved Hunter was the energetic, easy going icon of these teams. He was an All-Star in 2002 hitting .289/.334/.524 with 29 home runs and 94 RBI, plus daily highlights in the field. Entering his prime at 27 it appeared Hunter’s numbers could still improve. The Twins agreed, signing him to a long-term contract running through 2007.

Four years later everyone is still waiting for a season comparable to 2002. This leaves the Twins no choice but to trade Hunter this summer. While many still consider Hunter the face of the Twins, it is time for the Twins to move on.

Let’s start with this. Hunter’s option next year is $12million. For that kind of money, you better be paying a perennial All-Star. At worst, he’d better be your best player. Hunter is neither. And it’s not close.

There is plenty to appreciate about Hunter. He plays hard everyday, is an exceptional fielder, and when hot is a pretty good power hitter. He is also a pretty good guy. For all of these positives, they do not add up to $12million.

His career line is .267/.321/.458, 23HR and 88RBI. This year he is hitting .264/.340/.421 with 11HR and 41RBI. His stellar 2002 season is the exception. Excluding 2002, when his OPS was 100 points above the league average, his career totals are (.262/.317/.445). Hunter’s line looks pretty mediocre.

The fact that he is one of the highest paid outfielders in the league only makes it worse. In 2006 he doesn’t rank in the top 25 in any offensive category among outfielders.
Rank among outfielders:
Avg .263 (48th)
OBP .340 (40th)
SLG .421 (46th)
OPS .761(45rd)
HR 11 (T-27th)
RBI 41 (T-27th)

He currently has a lower slugging percentage than Dave Roberts. For a player often called the Face of the Franchise, his numbers do not prove it. Hunter is one of the four or five best fielding outfielders, but that can not excuse his lack of offense, and especially power. If he doesn’t deliver on the field, the fielding excellence and intangibles do not matter.

On top of his poor numbers, there are other reasons to trade Hunter. He is 30 and it is not a young 30. One of the reasons he is popular is his effort and recklessness in the field. It is also the reason that last year’s ankle injury will not be the last. He also has a tendency for sloppy play and poor decision making.

The Twins must trade him this summer, because they can’t afford to lose him for nothing. They also can’t afford to keep him under his current contract or sign him to an extension. It’s doubtful that Hunter is willing to take less money here, so the only option is trading him. (by the way, Jim Souhan believes not only should the Twins sign him, but sign him for Johnny Damon-like money)

With Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer in place, the Twins are getting power from the corner outfielders. This soothes the ache to have power in centerfield. Lew Ford or a less expensive veteran could fill in for Hunter at much cheaper cost, without greatly hurting the lineup. Or put another way, an underproductive-inexpensive player is preferred to an underproductive-expensive player.

Before Hunter begins cleaning out his locker, there are several obstacles. One hurdle is finding a willing destination for Hunter. The Yankees make sense, but they do not have many prospects to trade. Aside from Steinbrenner, few owners will get excited to trade for an overpriced potential free agent. The White Sox apparently are interested, but they are in the Central. Hunter is attractive to teams needing a centerfielder, but the Twins still shouldn’t expect much in return. A prospect or two may be the best offer.

The other issue is the public perception of trading a high profile player. After finally securing a new stadium, the move will look like a firesale to many people. No doubt, this is a financially driven move, but this is not a firesale either. Hunter is no longer vital to the Twins’ long term success. Trading him is for the long term health of the franchise. With Hunter, Shannon Stewart, Rondell White and Kyle Lohse all expendable, the Twins can save nearly $23million. This is money that can be spent on locking up players like Cuddyer, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. It can also be used to find Hunter’s replacement and a regular third baseman.

Regardless of how responsible the move truly is, there will still be fans and possibly politicians that perceive it as the Twins being cheap or greedy. The reality is the new stadium is three or four years away. If the Twins spend above their means now is foolish. It would be like a college sophomore buying a new car in anticipation of a good job after graduating.

Hunter will be missed. He plays hard, is entertaining and was one of the big pieces in the Twins’ resurrection. But now is not the time to get emotional for the Twins or fans. The future is too bright without him.
It is fitting that one of Hunter’s constant gripes is how often the roster turns over. He misses his old teammates like Dougie, Eddie, Jacque and AJ (funny he never mentions Cristian, Luis or Joe Mays). Well Torii, prepare to join them.