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Roll On 30

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Just a few thoughts on Torii's solid year.

This has been a season to remember for the Minnesota Twins, full of great stories, be it from a team or individual angle.  Young players have developed and are identifying their roles for the future.  Journeymen, backups and no-names have taken turns playing hero.  Players who are defined by greatness, heart and talent and lived up to and exceeded expectations.  As a whole, the stories and exploits are endless.

When this season ends, and it won't end before October 1, it will be one of the greatest summers for baseball for the Twins and their fans in many years.  Torii Hunter's 2006 has been a career year on many levels, and considering the circumstances surrounding his season, it's just been one hell of a season.

The Contract Thing

It's a familiar topic, one most of us are tired of debating.  At least I am.  In about a month we're going to have about 5 months to rip the issue to shreds in every way imaginable, but for right now I'm content to enjoy the playoffs before the rehashing begins.  All the same, the contract debacle has been a backdrop in Hunter discussions for quite some time.

This year Torii is earning a paycheck that's roughly 1/6th of the team salary.  In the grand scheme of baseball, $10.75 million isn't an outrageous salary, but it's all relative.  In spite of having good offense for a center fielder and having great defense over the years, the money has been a question in the later years of Hunter's contract because of the holes in Torii's game.  Strikeouts, impatience and not being "clutch" at the plate were some of the more obvious issues.  Although a player earning $10.75 million in New York or Boston or Los Angeles will be expected to be a good player, in Minnesota he is expected to be an All Star.  This means that good offense and Gold Glove defense aren't good enough, and when it was proven that Hunter wasn't a premier offensive threat that could anchor the middle of the order, the large back-end of his contract came under even more scrutiny.

Bum Ankle

Although the signs seem to be slowly dissipating now, throughout most of the early parts of the year it appeared Hunter's 2005 ankle injury was playing some role in inhibiting his play.  It wasn't blatant, but it was clear he wasn't the same player.  When it happened again and Hunter returned to the lineup earlier than initially projected, it was even more obvious, particularly in the field.  Not only were balls falling in the outfield, but his aggressiveness on the basepaths diminished as well.  Combine the issues of the ankle with a relatively large contract, and Hunter wasn't being viewed in a very positive light.

Early Season Struggles

As late as May 3, Hunter was hitting under .200.  The stigma that heiled Hunter as a streaky player, whose hot and cold streaks were supposed to define him, was playing itself to be true as he could collect 14 hits in a week as easily as he could collect 1.  Even though those hot streaks made Torii quite attractive, through April and May it certainly seemed as though the cold streaks were more than prevalent; they were the rule and not the exception.

So, here is what you had:  an injured player who was already overpaid was underperforming.  That's the formula for trouble.*

The Arrival of Torii Hunter

This is the first season that has finally seen surroundings that form to Torii Hunter's skill set...as opposed to trying to form Torii Hunter's skill set to the surroundings.  As hokey as it sounds, it's true.  The results of Torii not having to be the first or second-ranked offensive threat in the order have given him the following numbers for this season. For comparison, 2002 (considered his all-around career season offensively) and his career-best numbers in every category since becoming a full time player, are also included.

Year     Avg   Obp   Slg  HR  RBI  2B  SB  BB   K
2002    .289  .334  .524  29   94  37  23  35 118
2006    .279  .338  .488  29   93  20  11  44 103
Best    .289  .338  .524  29  102  37  23  50 101
Career  .269  .323  .462

At 31 years of age, Hunter's face is still the most recognizeable by the national media outside of Santana.  At 31 years of age, Hunter doesn't have to carry the offensive burdens of the team for the first time.  At 31 years of age, Hunter is on the thresh-hold of his best season as a professional baseball player.  He'll probably hit 30 home runs, probably set a career mark for OBP, has appeared to temper his aggressive approach to every at-bat and has an outside shot at reaching 100 RBI for the second time in his career.  His batting average, OBP and SLG will all top career averages.

It isn't the numbers on their own that give 2006 such a satisfying edge to Hunter's year.  What makes Torii's story for the season are the things that were playing against him earlier in the year; even for most of the year, in the case of the injury.  A bum ankle, ongoing contract ballyhoo, early offensive struggles...it's been a tough year.  Many were even calling for Hunter's head in center field, and rightfully so.

Right now, things are getting better.  Hunter's cold streaks haven't lasted more than a couple of days, as evidenced by a batting average that has stabilized between .267 and .280 since July 31.  At the same time, his hot streaks have been shorter, but more frequent.  Whether it's just a sign of the fairytale season, or whether it's the result of a less aggressive approach at the plate, it's hard to say...but he looks good.  Defensively, the range has improved since August and Torii seems to be more himself with his glove.  It won't surprise me if he takes home a sixth consecutive Gold Glove.

With 14 homers since August 18, with a line of .323/.337/.604 in September, with his role on the team making both sides better, Hunter is poised to help lead the Twins into October.  While it's many guys, not just Torii, who are having great years and making plays, Hunter's successes may have come in the face of the most adversity.

While Torii Hunter can be a guy you love to hate, for any number of reasons, you know he comes to win.  He brings it all, he wants to be there when it counts, and you have to love him for that.  31, I've decided, isn't old.  Roll on 30.

* The official equation for trouble  is 8/X^0.6, where X is the number of times J.C. Romero allowed inherited runners to score last week.