Hunter's Future

This topic comes up repeatedly in comment threads everywhere, not just on this site.  What are the options?

There are so many things to take into account when discussing a player's future with his current club.  Ability of the player, statistical performance, age, roster space and possible replacements are just a few of the categories to cover.  With guys like Torii the discussion becomes more personal, because he's been around for a few years, and while the faces of the organization continue to change, he remains a constant.  Whether we want to or not, we become attached to the athletes who perform for our chosen teams.  The question is whether or not, when the times comes, you can distance yourself from your personal feelings and make a decision for the future of the organization.

Contract Status

In 2006 Torii Hunter will make $10,750,000.  2007 is an option year in which he is scheduled to make $12,000,000 with a $2,000,000 buyout.

There's no doubt that Torii is extremely valuable to the Twins organization.  What fans question is whether or not he's valuable enough to consume roughly 1/6 of the team salary this year.  Even as the payroll increases to over $60 million dollars, it's hard to justify anyone consuming that much of the budget.  It will become increasingly difficult to justify if we need to deal with the possibility of Torii's new...

Health Concerns

Torii Hunter ended 2005 dying on the sword he lived by.  As he scaled the outfield wall in an attempt to chase down a home run, his cleats stuck in the lining of the padding, and the Twins' fate was sealed.

Sustaining the first major injury of his major league career, all eyes will be on the ankle of the high-flying center fielder.  Only 30 heading into 2006, if the ankle is healthy there's no reason he can't resume his career where it left off.  If it inhibits his burst or running speed, or even if he subconsciously attempts to protect the ankle, he'll have to adapt his game accordingly.

Statistical Performance

Year  Age Games 2B  HR  RBI  SB   AVG  OBP  SLG  OPS
1999   24  135  17   9   35  10  .255 .309 .380 .689
2000   25   99  14   5   44   4  .280 .318 .408 .726
2001   26  148  32  27   92   9  .261 .306 .479 .785
2002   27  148  37  29   94  23  .289 .334 .524 .858
2003   28  154  31  26  102   6  .250 .312 .451 .763
2004   29  138  37  23   81  21  .271 .330 .475 .805
2005   30   98  24  14   56  23  .269 .337 .452 .789
2005 Proj. 157  38  22   90  37  .269 .337 .452 .789
Career                           .267 .321 .458 .779

What becomes obvious if you take enough time to look at those numbers is that Hunter's abilities are not in decline.  In fact, over the last 2 years he's been slightly above his career averages.  If he was going into decline before the injury he had a funny way of showing it.

Discussing the obvious here has to be done.  If Hunter's ankle is fine, then Hunter is fine.  Turning 31 just after the All Star break, Hunter will not hit the typical physical decline until 2008 when he turns 33.  Regardless, the bottom line is that until Hunter proves his ankle is hindering his ability to play center field, or until his numbers actually do drop off, there's no reason to believe his offensive or defensive prowess in on the wane.

Age

I've already mentioned that Hunter will turn 31 about halfway through the 2006 campaign.  As for physical peak, each player is different and each position will vary in when decline typically occurs for an average performer, but as a general rule position players are considered at their "physical peak" between the ages of 26/27 and 32/33.  Short and sweet.

Replacements

There is one candidate to speak enthusiastically about when talking about the eventual replacement of Torii Hunter, and that is Denard Span.  Span is 22 this season.  Minor league subjects I'm superficially familiar with, so I'll feed off what Roger said in regards to Span in a comment to an article a couple of months ago.  Denard Span is the heir apparent to the center field throne, and will either be starting in Rochester or in Minnesota by 2007.  He won't be riding the bench.

This means that if the Twins do buy out Hunter's contract in 2007, Span is ready or they're confident they have a short-term solution to the problem.  This could be Lew Ford or a one-and-done free agent aquisition.

Possible Solutions

For keeping Hunter...
Following 2006 enter negotiations for a contract extension and renegotiation.  While this may cost the organization money if Hunter has a highly impressive season, contracts can be back-loaded to free up space on the 2007 budget.  Even if Span is ready to start in center field, Hunter's defensive abilities will allow him to shift outfield positions.  After all, Shannon Stewart will be off the books following this season, and left field will be open to competition again.

Another option is that if, for some unforseeable reason, the Twins cannot move Hunter and they feel they do not have a replacement available or ready for 2007, they keep him and pick up the $12 million option.  This scenario seems highly unlikely and I doubt it would come to fruition, but it's the only way I see the Twins retaining Hunter's services after this season without renegotiating.

For moving Hunter...
There is one option that helps the most in the short-term and hurts the most in the long-term, and that's allowing Hunter to play in Minnesota through 2006 and then buying out his 2007 option.  Essentially it's asking for one last hurrah and then letting him walk as a valuable asset, allowing him to become a free agent, getting nothing in return.

Another option is to trade Hunter mid-season, whether it's this year or next year after picking up the 2007 option.  This could be done if the Twins fall out of contention, especially early, in hopes that they could recoup some of the financial windfalls with trade compensation.  A nagging issue with trades like this is that teams in the position of the Twins rarely get fair return on a player of Hunter's caliber.

Conclusions

At this point it's hard to take anything but a wait-and-see attitude.  Wait-and-see how Hunter's ankle plays out.  Wait-and-see how the team performs.  Wait-and-see if there's a trade market.  Wait-and-see if Denard Span is ready.

I've always been a fan of Torii and always will be.  If he does go it will be the saddest departure for me since Kirby was forced into retirement.  Hunter has expressed his desire to finish his career in Minnesota, and I'd like to think there's a financial way to make that happen without crippling the club's chances at being competetive.  I want to be optimistic here, but I'm sort of between a rock and a hard place.

If 1 is an "absolutey not" and 10 is a "absolutey yes", I'd give the chance of moving Hunter in 2006 a 3, and I'd give the return of Hunter in 2007 a 5.  I'm such an optimistic bastard...
See? Torii's optimistic, too.

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