Siberian Baseball

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Now that the dust has settled, let's look at Mr. Hunter

Whew, what a busy, busy baseball season, hey Minnesota?

Went by pretty quickly and got pretty exciting at the end, wouldn't you say?

Now that we're safely away from October and the holidays are right around the corner, can we go back to taking a serious look at Torii Hunter and what he's bringing to the table this year?

Just for the quick refresher, Hunter got off to a so-so start (causing Frankie to drop him in our fantasty league and then curse his name ever two weeks after that) before flying under the radar, taking a bit of heat for his performance and turning it on down the stretch.

All of this is difficult to judge from seats in the Metrodome, as they can find the most skewed stats to make all of the Twins look like world-beaters... well, except for my buddy Rondell. Still, Hunter seemed to do well for the most part, assuming there were no runners on base for him to ground into a double play with.

Before it became clear that the playoffs weren't a total pipe dream, the calls for Hunter to move along were gaining some steam and then everyone seemed to forget in September.

Then came October.

Then came one of those that plays.

Hunter charges in on a ball hit to center and for reasons known only to him, he dives in for it as it slices away from his outstretched glove. This happens a few years to the day after he'd made basically the same mistake in the playoffs against the Yankees.

The difference? No one seemed to question his abilities after the first mistake - That's Hunter, he's a hard-nosed kind of guy. He was just being aggressive and got burned this time - as they have after this one.

The questions linger - and Twins brass has been pretty poitical about it - regarding the team picking up the option on his contract this offseason and the impact the stretch run had on that decision. They said Hunter is a quality outfielder, so the option was a no-brainer. I'm betting July would have brought a different answer.

Still, there had been a lot of questions from fans about whether he'd lost a step or just made a dumb play. In the days after the Twins were swept by Oakland, the talk radio lines were flooded with armchair GMs who were positive that Hunter's mind told him he could make that play, while his legs just didn't have the spring to play center anymore.

They seem to forget that the same outfield was covered in the 80s by a man who didn't look like he'd be competitive in horseshoes much less pro baseball, but the question was clear: Has Torii Hunter lost it?

It's hard for me to say - I didn't grow up watching him, so I don't have a solid frame of reference like I did for Ryne Sandberg, but there were times this season where I'd see him make a play and think, "That's it?"

He seemed to be a few short steps ahead of the ball, not the Hunter I'd seen on Web Gems and had learned to keep an eye on. Is he better than most center fielders?

Hard to say, but he'd have to be a top free agent this year if he was coming out now instead of next year. I think the key to Hunter's value will come this year as he continues to work against time at a position that demands speed.

Look around at other players who have had to adjust with Exhibit A being Nomar Garciaparra.

While he's long been known as a first-ball hitter, he began to struggle in Boston and Chicago when the bat speed began to drop a bit and the reflexes became just a hair slower. There were games where he seemed to actively ignore better advice to the contrary when it came to taking a pitch or two.

Hunter was pressing with the bat last season, trying to carry a team that already had two bigger bats in Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. Known for his Spiderman routine at the wall, there were a few dicey moments where Hunter seemed caught in the middle on hard hit fly balls.

Am I saying he's worthless as a center fielder? Not by a long shot. Am I saying he need to start adapting his game to play safer angles and accept that, like all players, as he ages, he's losing speed? Without a doubt.

How Hunter handles this upcoming season where fans with even intermediate memories will be putting him under a microscope will speak volumes about what to expect as he enters the back half of his career.

This will be difficult for the face of the Twins as he has to accept a supporting role as someone to drive in runs, dial back the power on his swings and look to make smarter plays in the field.

Hunter can still be a vital part of the organization, he's just no longer in a position to be the big dog at the Metrodome anymore.

(Photo from



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