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.