Torii Hunter, regardless of his seven years away from Minnesota, will always be regarded among fans as one of their favorite Twins of all time. It goes above and beyond Hunter's place in Twins history, which pretty well and good means his number will be retired at some point, and takes us into a fuzzy gray area where our own opinions and entrenched biases lead our fandom. Fandom is an emotional thing, and it elevates some players above their numbers.
Which is why I struggled, just a little bit, with the idea of Hunter returning. My biggest hangups had little to do with what he did or didn't bring to the team, because honestly we all knew what the risks were.
Still, coming into the season there's no doubt that Torii Hunter was highly sought after by competitive ball clubs, and Hunter's return to Minnesota was both a surprise and a catalyst for some warm fuzzies as well as some criticisms of the front office's reasoning. For a player who would turn 40 during the season, was dubbed the worst defender in all of baseball in 2014 via UZR/150, was worth 0.0 fWAR, but was able to still hit .286/.319/.446, there was obviously more at play in the decision making process than Hunter's on-field value.
Twins sign Hunter
Twins sign Hunter
Hunter got off to a slow start, hitting .203/.243/.304 through the team's first 20 games and striking out 13 times compared to just four walks. It was a dubious beginning, but it wouldn't last. From April 30 to May 31, Hunter hit .330/.386/.563 with six home runs and an incredible 25 runs batted in. His bat, along with contributions from Trevor Plouffe and Brian Dozier, was one of the biggest reasons the Twins went 20-7 during the month of May. Without that stretch, Minnesota wouldn't have been as competitive as they were.
In those early months of the season, part of the surprise in Hunter's performance was that he was serviceable in the outfield. There were times where he looked his age, but he also made leaping and diving catches that cast a shadow of the defensive wizard he used to be.
There's no doubt that Hunter tired in the dog days of the season. In July and August he combined to hit a miserable .162/.225/.292 with just six home runs and 20 runs driven in. There weren't any indications that he was playing hurt, but you could see the change reflected in his batted ball data. His infield fly ball rate jumped to 26.1% in July, and instead of hitting the ball up the middle he started getting pull happy and hitting more ground balls. Paul Molitor responded by sitting Hunter more often, particularly in August when Hunter started just 19 of the team's 28 games.
Perhaps it was cooler temperatures, or the extra rest, or facing a few pitchers just getting a cup of coffee, or perhaps he was invigorated by a playoff race, but Hunter turned it up again over the last few weeks of the season. Over his last 24 games (September 6 to October 3) Hunter hit .293/.320/.478, driving in 17 runs while adding five doubles and four more home runs to his career totals.
In a sense, everyone was right about Hunter in 2015. The Twins were right, because Hunter's 22 home runs and 81 runs batted in certainly gave the offense a bit of punch and, as mentioned earlier, he really did spearhead that incredible run in May, was better in the field than the numbers indicated in 2014, and based off of the dance parties and numerous endorsements from teammates and managers he was the presence the organization was hoping for in the dugout and off the field. And the fans were right, too, as Hunter tired after playing everyday and finished the season with an unimpressive .240/.293/.409 line.
Regardless of the .293 on-base percentage and declining play in the second half of the year, however, there's little doubt that Hunter was a valued member of the 2015 Minnesota Twins. The real question is what happens now.
Oswaldo Arcia, Byron Buxton, Aaron Hicks, Max Kepler, Eddie Rosario
That's a list of five young outfielders who all need Major League playing time. It's easy to write off Arcia after a terrible 2015, but keep in mind he's just one year removed from 20 home runs at age 23; he'll be just 25 in 2016 with a history of generating a great deal of offense. Hicks put together a nice year and will need time to continue developing if he's on the roster and healthy, and the same goes for Rosario. Buxton and Kepler could (and probably will) start the season in Triple-A, although that could change based on what happens to other outfielders on the roster.
Hunter puts an interesting kink in the plans of developing that crew of young outfielders, but he's the guy we're focusing on right now. If Hunter returns and he's healthy, it seems that he will be Minnesota's starting right fielder.
Hunter is a free agent five days after the World Series ends. If the Twins want to bring him back, a similar contract to the $10.5 million deal he signed for this year would be expected.
What's his role for the 2016 team?
This is an interesting situation. The Twins are an up and coming team, and are on the verge of having so many young players deserving of a roster spot that the front office could be pressured into trading them away lest some be lost because there won't be enough room on the 40-man roster for all of them. That could create an opportunity for Terry Ryan to flip one or two of Minnesota's young outfielders, but that's far from certain. Ryan has a history of situations letting themselves play out, as he did with the club's glut of starting pitching in spring training - and we're happy he waited when many of us were hoping he'd trade some of that excess away.
Hunter has said that he won't return for a part-time gig, balking at the idea of playing 81 games. The Twins have said that if Hunter wants to come back, they'll have him - which necessitates keeping his spot in right field open. No doubt he would return in same role he held in 2015, which is part mentor and player-coach, part presence, and hopefully part production. But until that happens, Minnesota's front office will hold fire on any attempt to clean up the outfield situation.
If Hunter chooses to retire, he'll be given a role within the organization. It could be as a coach or as an adviser, and that shouldn't be any surprise considering how closely the team keeps guys like Kent Hrbek, Tony Oliva, Bert Blyleven, Jack Morris, Roy Smalley, Tom Brunansky, Eddie Guardado, and - from his retirement until becoming Ron Gardenhire's bench coach in 2013 - Paul Molitor. At that point the Twins can float the outfield as best they see fit, and choosing a starting outfield from the above list of five is a luxury a lot of teams would love to have.
But if Hunter chooses to return, he'll be penciled in as Molitor's right fielder and the outfield will fall into place around him. After that, we just have to hope that one of the best position players to ever don a Minnesota Twins uniform could have one last season left in him.