Coming into the season, prevailing wisdom was that Torii Hunter was pretty far down on the Twins’ list of priorities for the future — that being anything past 2007. The main question seemed to be whether he should be traded midseason, if the team appeared to be struggling, or allowed to play out the year in Minnesota, leave through free agency and yield a couple of draft choices in return.
The Hunter-under-consideration then was coming off a season that presented an interesting connundrum. His offensive statistics were among the best of his career — a career high in home runs (31) and the second best batting average (.278) since becoming a full-season regular. But toward the end of 2006, his defense was such that he wasn’t doing some of the things that spoiled fans in the past — getting to no-hope fly balls to the wall or bloopers to short center. And there was the Game 2 play against Oakland in the playoffs when his ill-advised dive resulted in a backbreaking inside-the-park home run.
Nice player, one more year, let him go. The team has higher priorities for the future: Signing Johan, Morneau and Mauer (and probably Nathan) to long-term deals. An aging center fielder was a cut below on the priority chart based on perceived skills and the price he would command.
On May 15, 2007, we can paint a different picture:
Even though the season is young, Hunter is hitting for average and power in ways that force you (and 30 general managers/owners/field managers) to take notice. He’s batting .324 with a slugging percentage more than 90 points higher than his career best. Also, with a second year to recover from the broken ankle of ’05, Hunter has regained some prowess in center field. He may never be the Torii of old in the field, but the incredible catch he made against the White Sox last week and several other plays show that he’s awfully good for an older Torii.
And there’s one more thing to add to the equation, and I’ll keep this brief and try not to preach: civic responsibility. Acting on behalf of the people of Minnesota, the Legislature finally approved a funding plan for the new ballpark. The promises are that team payroll will increase because of the added revenue streams being made available to the owners. I’m sure that there are payroll projections for the years to become and I’m sure that, for beyond next season, the numbers are pretty murky.
Well, whatever murky number may have been out there without figuring Hunter into the equation should be revised to include another sweet deal for the center fielder.
On a team that can project a solid pitching staff for years to come and two of the brightest young stars in the game (Mauer and Morneau), as well as a minor-league system that isn’t exactly flush with offensive prospects and clubhouse presence, fans have a right to expect something in return for their support. Something substantial.
Signing Hunter (as well as Johan and Morneau, of course) to another deal has become a very reasonable expectation.