Well, well, well...look who's back. As has been widely reported at this point, Torii Hunter has signed a 1-year, $10.5MM contract with the Twins for the 2015 season. I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I think there is some good value there is he provides some solid, veteran leadership for this young up-and-coming team that the Twins have put together. On the other hand, I don't understand the front-office's obsession with former Twins players. Hunter is one of the first players they've brought back, but the coaching staff is replete with former Twins and I've heard rumors out there that the Twins are interested in potentially bringing back Liriano. Maybe my fears about the nepotism of the front-office are unfounded. Only time will tell I suppose.
I thought it would be fun to look at Torii Hunter from a 'then and now' perspective. Hunter spent 9 seasons with the Twins before leaving via free-agency to join the Angels and then after 5 seasons there he left and joined the Tigers for the past 2 seasons. When Hunter left the Twins he was a 31-year-old veteran center-fielder who had been a consistent performer on a playoff team. Now he is a 39-year-old corner-outfielder who is solidly in the twilight of his career.
Here is an average season for Hunter during his 9 seasons with the Twins:
136 games played
Averaged about 3.0 WAR per season
7 Gold Glove Seasons
Here is an average season for Hunter during his 7 seasons away from the Twins:
143 games played
Averaged 3.3 WAR per season
2 Gold Glove Seasons
In looking at the numbers, I'm actually impressed with Hunter's consistency at the plate. He has been a very offensively consistent player throughout his career and even over the past few seasons, he has stayed mostly healthy (has played at least 140gms each of the last five seasons) and while there has been a slight drop off in his overall power, he has been a consistent producer.
I think the one caveat we should put here is that he has played in the middle of some pretty powerhouse lineups. Last season, Hunter was primarily either a 2-hole or a 5-hole hitter with the Tigers. In 2013, Hunter was almost exclusively a 2-hole hitter. This means that for at least the last two seasons, he was hitting directly in front of one of the most feared hitters in baseball in Miguel Cabrera, who has been the 3-hole hitter for the Tigers for the past two years. Last season, the Tigers also had V-Mart hitting 4th. That is one heck of a 2-3-4 and is substantially better than what the Twins will have when Hunter dons the Twins uniform this coming season. I should also mention that Hunter had Ian Kinsler hitting in front of him in the lead-off spot...not too shabby there either. At best, the Twins will have a 2-3-4 of Hunter, Mauer and Arcia/Vargas or some combination thereof. It will be interesting to see what kind of numbers Hunter can put up in the less potent lineup that he will now be a part of.
Now let's talk about defense. When Hunter was with the Twins, he was a human highlight reel, regularly making spectacular plays in center field and occasionally robbing Barry Bonds of HRs in the All-Star game. Using defensive metrics that have been created since Hunter was a Twin, let's take a look at Hunter's defense from 2002 to 2007 (his run of 7 consecutive Gold Gloves in CF for the Twins) as compared to other qualified center fielders over that same period of time.
11.9 UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) - ranked 9th out of 14 CF (qualified) over the same period of time
2.3 UZR/150 (UZR averaged over 150 games) - ranked 10th of 14 CF over the same period of time
13.5 RngR (Range Runs above Average) - ranked 7th of 14 CFers
-36 TZ (Total Zone in Runs above Average) - ranked 14th out of 14 CFers
To put that into perspective, here are some of Andruw Jones numbers over that same period:
119.6 UZR - ranked 1st out of 14 qualified CFers.
20.5 UZR/150 - ranked 1st out of 14
92.8 RngR - ranked 1st out of 14
98 TZ - ranked 1st out of 14
For even more comparison, here is Denard Span's numbers in center field for the 5 seasons he was with the Twins:
Two observations. A) Hunter must have had a flair for the dramatic because his actual defensive metrics are not that spectacular, even amongst other qualified CFers playing during that same period. B) Holy crap Andruw Jones was good.
Hunter was no slouch in Center, we all know that, but his greatness there may have become a little exaggerated since his departure. Since leaving the Twins, he has also changed positions and is now primarily a Right-fielder. He hasn't been great in right field and last year, he was actually pretty atrocious from a defensive standpoint (-18.3 UZR and -12.3 dWAR). When you look at how Hunter's defense has declined over the past few seasons, it's concerning to think that he will be playing full-time right-field for a team that is already defensively challenged - and in a spacious ballpark no less.
So what's the best case scenario? For Hunter, part of his value to the Twins lies in his ability to get through to the young players and mentor them as they come up (Hicks, Arcia, Danny Santana to an extent, and Buxton). He knows the "Twins Way" and really has a chance to help the organization from that standpoint. As an actual everyday player...if Hunter performs close to what he has done over the past several seasons, he'll do just fine. Defensively I think he's going to have a hard time in right field, but here's to hoping he can at least competently hold down the role. The Twins are already log jammed at DH so hitting him in that spot is really not an option.
What the worst-case scenario? There are probably a lot of ways to go with this. He could get hurt in Spring Training and miss the entire season. That would be bad. He could decline significantly from an offense standpoint as a result of playing in a much less potent lineup and, combined with bad outfield defense, become a player with negative value. That would be bad too.
Overall, I'm happy Hunter is back. I loved him when he was a Twin the first time and he is definitely a fan favorite. Plus, all of those people still running around with Hunter jerseys can now be relevant again. His contract is throw-away money for the Twins and if he plays well, he could be a valuable trade piece at the deadline which could potentially help the Twins to continue to build their farm system. He also provides a solid veteran presence on a young team. All things considered, not a bad move for the Twins. One interesting thing to watch will be what decision the Twins make with Aaron Hicks and/or Oswaldo Arcia. Will Hicks again be given the keys to center field? Will he be relegated to the Minors in favor of playing Santana at Center?