Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Torii Hunter Dilemma

The common thread running through the Twins solid decade has been Torii Hunter more than anyone else. Terry Ryan and Ron Gardenhire have obviously been instrumental in putting together a competitive team despite a roster with a high rate of turnover. Until this year, Brad Radke was the elder statesman, playing through pain and leading by example on the pitching staff. Nonetheless, Hunter’s charisma, ability, and outspoken nature made him the most visible Twin for most of his contract. Even today, with a two time Cy Young winner (Santana), an all-American batting champ (Mauer), one of the best closers in baseball (Nathan), and the reigning AL MVP (Morneau), Hunter remains arguably the most widely recognizable player on the team. As such, it is no surprise that Hunter’s impending free agency looms like a giant fork in the road above the front office as the 2007 pennant race slides out of their grasp. It is difficult to make a judgment on what to do with Hunter in terms of statistics, chemistry, and public relations. In this space, I will examine a few of the advantages and drawbacks of different courses of action.

Keep Hunter for the year, try to re-sign him

Keeping Hunter makes for a good public relations move in two different respects. First, it helps signal that the team seeks to remain competitive throughout 2007, which certainly packs more fans into the stadium than an implicit concession. Additionally, a good faith effort at retaining Hunter would probably reflect well on an owner whose major problem is frugality, at least in the court of public opinion. Even though Carl Pohlad has always found the money to re-up his top level free agents- including Puckett, Knoblauch, Radke, Hunter, Santana, and Mauer- he will undoubtedly face some degree of public backlash for letting Hunter walk.

But that does not answer the real question. Would the Twins be wise to retain Hunter? Even though his physical prime has come and gone, I believe that Hunter is exactly the type of player who will age well. His elite athleticism will help him keep some value afield, and he can survive at the plate without too many walks or an extremely high batting average. His worst offensive season as a full time regular came in 2003 when he managed to hit only .250, but still produced an OPS+ of 97 due to his good power. Combined with strong defense at a premium position, Hunter forecasts to be a solid player even as he ages. Using PECOTA projections, Baseball Prospectus pegs Hunter for a solid big league regular through at least 2010, maintaining a weighted mean EQA above .270 through 2011. If he can keep his defense above average, that sort of player definitely has some value, nearly $10 million per year, according to PECOTA. With the Twins’ dearth of minor league position players, one could make a case that the opportunity cost of losing Hunter is so great next year, and would carry over so much into 2010 (the ETA of the new ballpark), that he is worth the extra money he would require to retain him. Without power or on-base skills, Denard Span has fizzled, and Ben Revere looks like Span-lite. Hunter may mean more to the Twins than to any other team.

Keep Hunter for the year, let him walk

Of course, the first two possibilities are largely indistinguishable, especially if Hunter’s market price goes through the roof. Just how much will Hunter make in the open market? That’s an excellent question, and will likely have a lot to do with what the Twins resolve to do. On one hand, Ichiro’s new $90 mil+ extension makes Hunter look completely unsignable. But the Mariners made the Ichiro deal to keep the Japanese market, an advantage Hunter does not bring, and because his unique skill set seems to position him well for the aging process. If nothing else, Hunter’s contract is unlikely to be as long as Ichiro’s, even if a bidding war mushrooms his salary about $15 mil per year.

Another issue to consider is the recent collapse of Johnny Damon, another elite CF who had a career year at age 31 before becoming a free agent. Inevitably, detractors will invoke Damon’s fate when trying to depress Hunter’s salary, pointing out that his all-out defensive style wore him down to the point that too many singles turned into outs and Damon turned into a pumpkin. One important difference between the two is that Hunter has been more consistent for most of his career. He has slugged between .450 and .550 every year since age 25, a skill Damon was not able to fall back upon. Also, Hunter’s aforementioned 97 OPS+ season in 2003 was the only time he dipped below 100. Damon’s reliance on his batting average instead of power made him more subject to fluctuations, giving him some seasons better than what Hunter has ever done with the bat, but also four seasons below 100 OPS+, one as low as 85. In other words, considering both offense and defense, Damon had had distinctly average seasons before becoming a free agent. Hunter has never done that. Damon needs to hit at least .280 to be above average, while Hunter’s power has allowed him to have four seasons below .280 with an OPS+ above 100. With Damon’s higher peak, Hunter may not have more perceived value, but he is likely to remain a better player longer than Damon, unless one of his homerun saving grabs rips his shoulder out of socket.

Damon entered the free agent market with Carlos Beltran, giving teams options and decreasing the likelihood of an all out bidding war. Hunter enters the market alongside the slumping Andruw Jones, and the slightly less desirable lot of Eric Byrnes, Kenny Lofton, and Mike Cameron. Without much talk of a longer deal, Damon signed for four years and $52 million. Adjusting for inflation and the current market, I suspect Hunter will get something in the neighborhood of five years and $75 million. A team truly desperate for a right handed power hitter who can play a strong centerfield may try to increase the yearly value at the expense of the length, perhaps offer $64 million over 4 years. Either way, I think Hunter will come up short of earning that money by about $10-15 million worth of market value, not a hideous sum, but one that the Twins cannot afford given the necessity to extend whoever they can out of the group of Santana, Morneau, Cuddyer, and Nathan.

Letting Hunter walk, of course, comes with the side benefit of two draft picks so long as the team offers him arbitration. If he signs with a team in the top half of the league in wins, it will be a first rounder. Otherwise, it will be a second rounder, and a sandwich pick between rounds one and two will be part of the deal either way. In that light, Hunter signing with a bad team like the Rangers would cost the Twins about 15 spots in the draft order versus losing him to the Yankees or Red Sox. With the Twins recent history of drafting position players, those picks may be frustrating failures, but they have value nonetheless, and have to be taken into account when deciding his fate.

Try to trade Hunter now

Going into this weekend’s Cleveland series, the Twins picked a terrible time to slump their way out of playoff contention. If they remained within five games of the playoffs, it would be worthwhile for Terry Ryan to pursue offensive upgrades at third base and DH. If they were clearly out of the race two weeks ago- as they are now- they could have put Hunter on the trading block, along with Luis Castillo, Carlos Silva, and Juan Rincon. Without giving other teams time to bid against each other, there is not enough of a market on Hunter to get a proper return, nor is their enough time to work out the details of a deal on a player who may require a window of time to negotiate an extension before the trade could be made.

One possible suitor could have been Damon’s Yankees, who need a right handed bat and could use Hunter’s outfield defense to go with the eroding range on their corners. While Hunter would not be enough to nab elite pitching prospects like Phil Hughes or Joba Chamberlain, but paired with a bullpen arm like Rincon, he could probably return one of the secondary pitching prospects like Alan Horne along with an outfield prospect like Jose Tabata or Brent Gardner. Neither would fill the centerfield void, which is why I have also advocated for the Twins to pursue other trades for centerfield prospects all year. A player like Michael Bourn would help the Twins a little this year by filling in LF while Kubel plays more at DH, and would be able to slide into CF next year, solving a big quagmire on the cheap. An offer of Carlos Silva and a minor league reliever might be enough to get that done.

In any case, I do not believe that trading Hunter would net the Twins more value than the two draft picks they would get for losing him as a free agent. If Ryan had built up a market for Hunter the way Jon Daniels has done with Mark Teixeira, the scales might have tipped slightly. As the timing has worked out, Ryan was too close to contention to start offering Hunter at the appropriate time, so he cannot be faulted for his course of action. Thus, letting Hunter walk has more value to the Twins than trying to trade him in a rushed package.


If Hunter is going to cost $15 million per year, the Twins quite simply cannot afford to keep him. I do not mean that the Twins could never dedicate that much money to one player, but with extensions for so many players on the docket, Hunter’s value does not fit into the equation. Keeping Santana for $18-20 million per year with some money deferred would make lots of sense for the team. Giving Morneau $12-15 million per year might not even break the bank if they are willing to let Nathan walk at the end of 2008, leaving Pat Neshek at the back of the bullpen. As the oldest member of that group, Hunter has the greatest potential for regression, and is the least likely to help the team in 2010. Even though it will once again make Carl Pohlad look like a malevolent cheapskate, it is time to thank Hunter for the good times he’s had, and to let the face of the franchise walk away.

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