Growing up, my favorite player was Kirby Puckett. Granted, I was just a child so I latched on to the guy that had the biggest smile, the loudest cheers, and the best stats. It was disappointing when he was the recipient of a Dennis Martinez fastball to the eye and the subsequent glaucoma that ended his career.
A few years later, the Twins had another smiling talented player roaming center field in the Metrodome. His all-out hustle on defense, his recklessness on the bases, his ability to hit for average and power were all inspiring as a pre-teen. That man was Torii Hunter.
He did have a slow start to his career, debuting in 1997 at the age of 22 by playing in a single game. The following season, he saw action in six games. It wasn't until 1999 that he became a regular starter and even then, his hitting was putrid, slashing only .255/.309/.380 in 135 games. However, Hunter demonstrated what can happen when you're patient with a young player as he finally put it all together in 2001, slugging 27 home runs with a .261/.306/.479 triple-slash. Due to the offensive era, however, that was only good enough to be a league-average hitter.
A sample of Hunter History
A sample of Hunter History
Still, Hunter continued to flash power in the middle of the Twins lineup for the next six seasons. When he hit free agency after the 2007 season, the Twins did have the intent of re-signing him, but were ultimately beaten when the Los Angeles Angels swooped in with a 5-year, $90 million contract.
Although it was disappointing that the Twins lost Hunter, it first appeared that the price the Angels paid was a bit steep. However, Torii defied odds into his mid-30s as he continued to hit 20+ home runs a season as offense was declining around baseball.
One thing that did decline however was his defense. At his peak, he was an excellent defensive center fielder, leading to multiple Gold Gloves, but the numbers showed that his decline actually started towards the end of his Twins career. That decline was severe enough (along with the emergence of defensive stalwart Peter Bourjos) that the Angels felt the need to move Hunter over to right field.
In his two-and-a-half seasons in right (2010 was split between right and center) UZR saw Hunter as a net above-average defender. It turned out a simple defensive switch was all that was needed to stave off his decline on defense. However, time has been and always will be undefeated, and his two years in Detroit showed a Torii Hunter that we weren't accustomed to seeing. His offense still was above-average compared to the rest of the league, but his defense had slipped dramatically. He was below-average according to UZR/150 (so we're looking at a per-150 game basis instead of a counting stat) in 2013 and last season, he rated as the worst defensive right fielder in all of baseball among qualified fielders. Even when you scale the minimum innings limit down to 250 innings (essentially 28 games) there were only 4 outfielders worse than Hunter: Avisail Garcia, Endy Chavez (!?), Carlos Beltran, and Travis Snider.
This is one of my main reasons why I'm not interested in a reunion with Torii Hunter. With Oswaldo Arcia already entrenched in right field and a big question mark in center, the Twins are staring at a poor defensive alignment. Hunter's biggest on-the-field asset is his offense, something the Twins weren't lacking last season. Unless the strategy is to win a bunch of high-scoring games, I feel the Twins should be focusing more on a defensive outfielder to combat their pitching woes.
Second, I keep hearing that the Twins need a veteran leader in the clubhouse. Reportedly Hunter did that very thing when he was still a member of the Twins. However, I feel that his leadership has been overstated and he's been newsworthy for the wrong reasons anyway.. Let's see... whether it was throwing Lew Ford under the bus for refusing to pinch-hit in a game Ford claims he was never asked, or attempting to punch Justin Morneau and hitting Nick Punto instead, or getting into a fight with Albert Pujols, or commenting on Latino players being African-American "imposters," or stating that he would be uncomfortable playing with a gay teammate and recording political ads against gay marriage, he's had too many off-the-field incidents for my liking.
Even more Hunter History
Even more Hunter History
All of that doesn't sound like a leader to me, it sounds like a player that is a distraction. Besides, if we're looking for a leader in the clubhouse, what's wrong with Kurt Suzuki? How about Phil Hughes? You have two veterans right there on either side of the team that could easily lead their teammates. We've already heard that Hughes was making an impact on Trevor May and I bet Suzuki has done the same with some of the position players. Why does there need to be another veteran added to the mix, especially when it bombed last year with Jason Bartlett and Jason Kubel?
Finally, I'm not even convinced Torii Hunter is the best fit for the Twins considering his skill set. The market is already saturated with good-bat, no-glove outfielders in Hunter, Nelson Cruz, Michael Morse, Corey Hart, Ryan Ludwick, and Jonny Gomes. Hunter will be the oldest on Opening Day (39) whereas the ages of the others listed will be 34, 33, 33, 36, and 34, respectively. Even though Hunter has defied the odds by remaining productive as he's approached 40 years old, I'd still bet he's a better candidate to have his performance drop off a cliff than Cruz or Morse (Hart, Ludwick, and Gomes all were poor hitters last year).
I'm convinced that the push for bringing back Torii Hunter is based more on nostalgia than anything else. We loved him when he was a Twin and a lot of us would love to see him back, but I see his off-the-field incidents and the risk of a declining player as detriments. No, he will not make or break the 2015 Twins squad, but I feel the Twins could do better than him.