Friday, February 03, 2006

The Torii Factor

When the Timberwolves got rid of Wally Szczerbiak in a trade with the Celtics last week, I was really disappointed. Not because I don't believe Ricky Davis - the main player acquired in the deal - is a better player, but because Wally is the guy on the Wolves who I just loved to watch. I have his jersey, I checked his stats on a nightly basis, and he was always the first guy I looked for on the court when I flipped on the game. He wasn't the best player on the team (although this season, you could make the argument), but he was a phenomenal shooter and he played hard night in and night out. Despite being smaller than most guys on the inside, Wally would routinely drive to the hoop in an effort to bang it in and draw the foul.

When news came following last season that Torii Hunter had sold his house, rumors began to swirl that the Twins were on the verge of trading their regular center fielder of seven years. This buzz was magnified when the Yankees stole Johnny Damon from the Red Sox, leaving Boston in the market for a big-name center fielder.

It wasn't out of the question that the Twins could have improved by trading Hunter. Their offense last year was abysmal, and there were several areas in need of significant improvement. Still, I kept my fingers crossed the entire off-season that the Twins would retain the five-time Gold Glove winner. Torii is my Wally on the Twins. He might have some serious flaws, but I absolutely love to watch him play. Even with Johan Santana around, he is still the face of the franchise and the most nationally recognizable player on the team. He constantly makes ESPN's Web Gems with his unbelievable defensive plays, he hits clutch home runs, he stares down pitchers after getting beaned, and he is one of the most entertaining base-runners I've ever seen, swiping bags with the pitcher still holding the ball and barreling into catchers in close plays at the plate. Sure, he has a history of some pretty bad strike zone judgment and he tends to be very streaky, but Hunter is the guy I want at the plate when the team needs a big hit.



Because the Twins were so disappointing last year and because he missed the entire second half of the season with a bad ankle injury, people tend to forget just how well he was playing before he went down. Hunter was nearly an All Star; he was the leading candidate early for the "32nd Man" position, a final roster spot voted for by fans online, but was eventually surpassed by Chicago's Scott Podsednik who won the honor. Torii was swiping bases at a maniacal rate; he stole 11 bags in April without being caught and had nabbed 19 by the All Star break. He was hitting home runs and driving men in. His overall line at the break was excellent, especially for a center fielder: .271/.342/.481 with 14 HR and 54 RBI. In June, Torii was ridiculous, hitting .330/.410/.681 with eight home runs and 22 RBI.

Perhaps the most important statistic was that Hunter was showing more patience at the plate than ever before in his career. His .337 on-base percentage before he went down ranks higher than any he has posted in any previous season in his career. He had drawn 34 walks in 396 plate appearances; not great but compare that to 40 walks in 580 appearances in '04. Even in his best season, 2002, Hunter drew only 35 walks in 596 PAs.

After recently reconciling a feud with Justin Morneau, Hunter is ready to step back in as the leader of this team. With the additions of Luis Castillo and Rondell White, along with the hopeful development of Morneau and Joe Mauer, Torii will have much more support in the lineup this year and could be poised for a great season.

While the additions were great, hanging on to Hunter might just turn out to be the team's wisest move this off-season.

5 comments:

Ryne Case said...

I was actually thinking of making my own "Ode to Torii" post on my site (caseintheface.typed.com) rather soon. Despite all the talk this offseason I think you did a great job of making a case for Torii and why he's so important to the team. My biggest thing is that in recent years he's dedicated himself to helping the team in any way he can. You point that out in the way he steals bases and as started to improve his plate discipline. Great job!

Nick N. said...

Thank you sir. I felt these were necessary points because almost all the hype I've seen around regarding an improved Twins offense has failed to include the return of the team's heart and soul in CF. Because he's been here so long, it can be easy to take for granted the contributions that Torii makes to this team, even though he is being paid a bucket-load of money.

cmathewson said...

Excellent work. You echo most of my sentiments. It seems like the majority of the blogging community wanted to send Hunter out for prospects like Marte. Their view was the Twins could then use his salary room to acquire more offesne. But no one suggested a trade that strengthened the team, considering how valuable Hunter is. Some suggested that the Twins should have taken the trade that Cleveland made when they sent Coco Crisp and parts to Boston for Marte, Shoppach and parts. That trade weakened the Tribe this year, IMHO. And it would have been an even worse trade for the Twins considering how much more valuable Hunter is than Crisp, especially defensively.

Those who hate Hunter because of a couple of off-field faux pas seriously overestimate his missteps and underestimate how strong of a leader he is both on the field and off the field most of the time.

Fortunately, Ryan understads more than those bloggers and was wise to keep Hunter. He's not a bargain, but he's worth every penny of his contract this year.

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