Torii Hunter wasn't the free agent outfielder that the Minnesota Twins needed. The Twins needed an outfielder who could play the outfield well, and if he could hit a little bit that would be a plus, too. Minnesota wasn't the team that Hunter needed, either. He needed a team that could offer him one final crack at a World Series ring.
Why did Hunter choose the Twins? The common refrain right now is that it was a heart over head decision, because he wanted to come back to Minnesota. Terry Ryan and the Twins wanted Hunter for a couple of reasons that have nothing to do with on-field performance.
- Mentoring young players
- Being a leader
The pundits are dealing the same line: some decisions transcend money/analytics; this was all about going home. It's a wonderful narrative to spin, even if you ignore that the move may not help you win ballgames. So, let's try to put it all together. What can and cannot Torii Hunter bring to the Minnesota Twins, both on and off the field?
Torii Hunter cannot play defense
We've covered this before, but Torii Hunter was the worst defensive right fielder in baseball in 2014. Whether you want to look at players who qualified for he batting title, or whether you just lump in everyone who played at least 200 innings at the position, Hunter was by far the worst. Oswaldo Arcia and Curtis Granderson, if you could theoretically mesh how bad both players were in the field into one bad player, still wouldn't be as bad as Hunter was.
What made him so terrible? His range. Over the last few years Hunter's defense has been on the decline, and in his age-38 season it's not much of a surprise that his legs have stopped cooperating. None of this is useful to a Twins team that didn't have a problem scoring runs, but had more problems preventing them.
Torii Hunter can probably still hit a little
There are a few things worth noting about Hunter's offense. He still hits the ball hard, posting a 21.3% line drive rate and a 20% hard-hit rate. The hard-hit rate would have led the 2014 team.
Hunter started last year strong but faded through June, and after play on July 1 was hitting .249/.274/.409. But in the second half, Hunter raked with a .318/.358/.479 triple slash. The walk rates are way down and the isolated power hasn't topped .170 since 2010, but with a quantity of plate appearances he's capable of knocking out 15 home runs provided this isn't the season where Hunter's talent collapses in on itself.
Torii Hunter cannot provide reliable production
2015 will be Hunter's age-39 season, and he'll turn 40 on July 18. He's well past the point where a player's performance can fall off of a cliff, and we all know he's done well to be as good as he's been so late into his 30s. Yes, Hunter's 2014 offensive numbers imply that he's still a guy that can hit (he produced at a rate 11% above league average), but even 39-year old Hall of Fame players have found history to be a cruel mistress.
Torii Hunter can put butts in seats
The reaction to Hunter's signing has been varied, but there is no shortage of fans who are happy with the move. A friend of mine did some math this morning. He figured that Hunter alone would put an extra 1,000 fans at every home game; that seems a little optimistic to me though, so let's say 500. 500 tickets, at a mean cost of $35.00 per ticket, for 81 games, means an extra $1,417,500 in revenue.
It's a good way of looking at it, but do you know what will sell tickets better than Torii Hunter? Winning baseball games and being competitive in August and September. Maybe Hunter is a part of that - a part of what will become a competitive Twins team later in the 2015 season - but he can't do it on his own.
Torii Hunter can be a presence
Some people will say leader, some people will say distraction, but somewhere in the middle is presence. Hunter's mouth has gotten him into interesting spots on countless occasions, and whether he's punching teammates, disclosing personal issues of teammates, calling teammates out through the press, or announcing his homophobic viewpoints in public, he's far from a model player and leader no matter how the narrative is spun.
But none of that means he can't be a good mentor to young players. He can show them how to prepare, not just for a game but for a long and grueling season. He can show young guys how to dress. He can show Aaron Hicks and Byron Buxton how to read and position and study. He can take them out, buy them a good suit, and show them what it's like to be a representative of the team for whom you play.
Should Joe Mauer be able to do some of that? Absolutely. But there are a lot of young guys on this team, and whether you like Hunter as an individual or not it's impossible to deny that he can be magnetic. People are drawn to that. If Torii Hunter wants to be a good mentor, and that certainly seems to be the case from top to bottom, then I have no doubt that he'll be the best mentor the Twins could ask for.
Torii Hunter is a goodwill gesture
Hunter is a recognizable face and name, and he's not a bad hitter. Fans, by and large, remember him fondly from his glory years with the Twins. Players recognize him as a talented ambassador of the game, and will see his addition as an installment of faith in them from the front office. It allows Hunter to retire a Twin - which is what he has always wanted.
Goodwill gestures do not win ballgames. The Twins must now take care of the larger priorities: making the team better in 2015 and in the future. That means finding a starting pitcher, and it might also mean another outfielder - one who can play some very good defense - because with Arcia in left and Hunter in right we're looking at one more year of plodding corner outfielders. He was worth all of 0.3 fWAR in 2014, and unless he can recoup a little value on the defensive side it's hard to see him topping more than 1.0 fWAR this year.
How I feel about this move personally is a trickier issue. I'll get into that a bit more tomorrow, because I need to sleep on it. As you may know by now, I have complicated feelings about Hunter as a fan.