Monday, June 15, 2015

The Torii Hunter Effect, And What's Next

It's 2015, Torii Hunter is 39 years old, and the Minnesota Twins are going to soon be looking at the question of what's next for their heralded fan-favorite. Signed to a one-year, $10.5 million contract, Hunter stated that the Twins were the last team he would play for prior to returning to the fold this season. Now with 55 games under his belt, and a respectable season underway, the Twins are forced to start considering options.

Through just over the first third of the 2015 season, Hunter has posted a .268/.325/.427 slash line. He's added eight long balls and is the team leader in runs batted in. Through 55 games of action, Hunter is worth 1.0 fWAR and has virtually continued along his career trends (.279/.334/.464). At the plate, there is little doubt that Hunter has given the Twins everything they could have asked for and then some.

In the field, Hunter was expected to be more liability than asset, and that too has played out. He's been worth -6 DRS (defensive runs saved) and has a UZR (ultimate zone rating) of just 1.4. Having posted a career worst -18 DRS last season for the Tigers in 1114 innings, he is on pace to be right around that mark once again in 2015. He has also committed three errors in just 44 games, putting him on pace for what would be a career high, eight. Finally, his lone outfield assist has him on pace for just under three on the season, which would be the lowest mark for Hunter since 2009.

Obviously the least quantifiable measurement of Hunter's value to the 2015 Twins is what he has done off of the field in the form of veteran leadership. Between dance parties in the clubhouse, and a sense of early season accountability, Hunter has transformed what has been a culture of losing in recent seasons. Helping to push young players to new heights while allowing veterans to latch on to a vocal leader, Hunter has proved invaluable in that regard.

It may be in his leadership however that causes the most questions for the Twins going forward. In 2016, the Twins should be full throttle into their youth movement. With star prospect Byron Buxton now called up, and youth in the form of Eddie Rosario and Kennys Vargas seeing regular playing time, the roster turnover has begun. Despite being surprisingly competitive in 2015, the Twins push towards relevance should have always been expected to really kick off with the 2016 season and beyond. Looking at what Hunter brings to the table, there's no doubt a question of where, and maybe even if, he fits in.

On one hand, it's quite apparent that Hunter's bat can still play. Despite looking at 40 years old in the 2016 season, Hunter could prove to once again be a valuable asset in the middle of the lineup. While that bat will no doubt be taking away opportunities from young, developing hitters, the Twins could choose to go that direction. On the other hand, the defensive liability Hunter has become should really not have a place in the big leagues going forward. With Buxton and Rosario holding down two spots, Aaron Hicks could be paired to round out the outfield and provide an elite level of defense.

Minnesota factoring in Hunter for next season and beyond will no doubt be a topic of conversation in the coming months. If Torii is willing to be looked upon as solely a designated hitter, and in a rotation with other players at that, then the Twins would no doubt have to listen. Should Hunter want to remain a regular in the field as well however, the Twins may be better off asking him to lend his leadership capabilities in a coaching or consulting capacity.

Torii Hunter has given the Twins so much over his 19 year career, and the organization is all the better for it. In 2015, he continues to be more asset than liability, making sure that remains the scenario into the future is something both parties will have to discuss.

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