In August of 2007, the Minnesota Twins offered long-time Gold Glove Center Fielder Torii Hunter a 3 year/$45 million deal to stay with the team. He turned it down to sign a 5 year/$90 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels.
“The money is one part because it blew everybody out of the water,” Hunter said. “The other part is they want to win. They play the game the way I like it.” – Joe Christensen, Star Tribune, 11/22/07
And just like that, Torii Hunter moved on.
From 1999 when he cracked the starting lineup to his final season in 2007, Hunter had a .271/.324/.469 triple split (Avg./OBP/SLG) with 192 homeruns and 709 RBI for the Twins. Coupled with his stellar defense (7 Gold Glove Awards), his consistently above average offensive abilities in the middle of the Twins lineup made him a linchpin to the team’s success. He helped the team reach the playoffs in 2002, 2003, 2004 and 2006 and enjoyed a .527 winning percentage during his tenure as starting centerfielder. Would the history of the Twins have been different if Hunter stayed in Minnesota? Here are some hypothetical situations (starting with the most likely) that Torii would/could have influenced had he still been on the team.
Scenario Number One – The Twins Three-Peat as AL Central Champs
A three year deal would have kept Hunter in centerfield for the 2008-2010 seasons. The Twins lost Game 163 against the Chicago White Sox in 2008 and won the AL Central in 2009 and 2010, suggesting that they didn’t need Hunter to continue their run of success. However, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Hunter would have produced the same stats from 2008-2010 no matter what team he was playing for. Hunter was worth 3.4 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in 2008 whereas the Twins starting centerfielder that year, Carlos Gomez, was worth 2.1 WAR, a difference of 1.3. If you believe in WAR, that extra win of value that Hunter provided over the course of the season compared to Gomez would have pushed the Twins into the playoffs without needing Game 163 against the White Sox. If you don’t strictly believe in WAR, Torii might have tipped the scales in the 1-0 pitching duel that did occur in Game 163, and sent Minnesota to the 2008 playoffs.
Scenario Number Two – The Twins Go Deeper into the Playoffs in 2009 and 2010
Continuing under the assumption that all-around team performance would have at least stayed the same with Torii Hunter (and thus the Twins make the playoffs in ’09 and ‘10), how much better do the Twins’ playoff batting orders look with Hunter in the mix? The Twins were swept by the New York Yankees both years and both years they played without injured slugger Justin Morneau. In 2009, Denard Span started two games in CF and Gomez started one, putting up a combined production of 4 hits, 2 runs and 0 RBI in 13 at bats from the centerfield spot. In 2010, Span started all three games in center and had 4 hits, 0 runs and 0 RBI in 13 at bats. Hunter didn’t produce spectacular postseason numbers with the Twins but he did average over 3 runs and 2 RBI in his four ALDS’ for the Twins, better numbers than the Twins got from CF in ’09 and ’10. Consider too that in 2009 the LF/RF combo of Delmon Young and Jason Kubel (played one game as DH) combined to have 2 hits, 1 run and 0 RBI in 26 at bats. Sliding Span to a corner spot and sticking Hunter in center might have increased production enough to at least take another game from the Yankees, if not the series.
Scenario Number Three – The Matt Garza – Delmon Young Trade Never Happens
After the 2007 season, the Twins traded Garza, Jason Bartlett and a minor leaguer to the Tampa Bay Rays for Delmon Young, Brendan Harris and Jason Pridie (Read this great analysis of the trade). However, in this alternate universe, with Torii Hunter locked up in centerfield for the next three years and Denard Span waiting in the wings for a possible corner outfield spot, the appeal for outfielder Delmon Young might not have been that high. Hindsight has shown us that this was a completely one-sided trade for the Rays and the Twins shouldn’t have made the swap, but would the presence of Hunter have kept Garza around? Probably not. The Twins had seven capable guys for the 2008 starting rotation and GM’s always say that you should trade from a position of strength. Garza likely had the greatest trade value of the bunch so perhaps he would have been traded to fill a different area of need, not the solid Hunter-lead outfield. Maybe the infield would have made a high-profile improvement instead?
Scenario Number Four – The Payroll and Roster Gets Flipped on its Head (Very Speculative!)
Imagine now that Torii Hunter was on the books for $15 million a season from 2008-2010. What would this have done for the cash-strapped Metrodome Twins? Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer signed a six year/$80 million and 3 year/$24 million contract, respectively, before the 2008 season. Could the team afford to keep them AND Hunter for such big money (for the Twins)? What if Morneau and or Cuddyer left in free agency after the 2008 season? Guess who else signed a big money contract in the time span that Hunter’s deal would have run through? Joe Mauer’s 8 year/$184 million deal. Maybe it isn’t such a clear cut decision to sign Mauer if Hunter’s contract was in the way.
Finally, the Metrodome turf was a notoriously hard surface to bang around on and it obviously got to Hunter. Here’s how he described the Angels’ ballpark at the time of his signing; “the outfield is perfect. The grass is perfect. You can’t beat that.” – Joe Christensen, Star Tribune, 11/22/07.
What if Target Field attracted Hunter enough to sign on for a new contract after the original three year deal because he loved playing on the fresh grass? The Twins still wouldn’t have made the playoffs from 2011-2013 but Hunter could have been on our team instead of playing for the Detroit Tigers, in the playoffs.
Just some things to think about…