Likely Starter: Torii Hunter
2005 stats: .269/.337/.452, 14 HR, 56 RBI
Potential Backups: Lew Ford, Nick Punto
With all the changes that have occurred on the Twins' roster in the past several years, there is one thing you have pretty much always been able to count on: seeing #48 out in center field. I wrote an article several weeks ago talking about Torii Hunter's importance, both to the team and to me as a fan. Hunter is the heart of the Minnesota Twins, an outstanding defender and a solid offensive producer.
Last year, Hunter had his season cut short when he broke his ankle making a play against the center-field wall of Fenway Park. Through 98 games, Hunter had been fairly productive, hitting .269 withn 14 home runs and 56 RBI while stealing 23 bases. Despite missing a major chunk of the year, he won his fifth consecutive Gold Glove award.
Currently, Torii appears to be near 100% in recovery from his ankle injury, and he will be a very important piece in the Twins' plans this year. He will likely bat fifth in the lineup, behind projected clean-up hitter Rondell White. Hunter may not hit for great average, but he is capable of coming up with big hits to score runners and is the team's most established power hitter.
I tend to think Hunter's power is a little underrated. He is the best home run hitter the Twins have had since Kirby Puckett. Excluding last year, which was cut short by injury, he has averaged about 26 homers per season for the last five years. People frequently complain about the Twins' inability to produce a 30-HR season from any hitter in the past two decades, but Hunter hit 29 in 2002.
Torii's ability to produce this season will likely depend greatly upon how well Justin Morneau is able to bounce back from a disappointing 2005 campaign. Hunter struggles when opposing pitchers don't give him anything decent to hit; he has a tendency to chase bad pitches out of the zone. If he has some protection in the lineup, he will see more good pitches. Since Morneau will likely be hitting sixth in the lineup, his improvement will be key toward allowing Hunter to see some fastballs and put up statistics similar to his career year in 2002 (.289/.334/.524, 29 HR, 94 RBI).
Despite his injury last year, I expect Hunter will still play all-out as he always has. He is an extremely aggressive base-runner with an uncanny ability to catch pitchers off-guard for stolen bases. His range in center field is unrivaled in the American League. This makes him an extremely fun player to watch, but with his reckless style of play another injury is not out of the question. Should that happen, Lew Ford is really the only other player projected to be on the roster who could start regularly in center. Nick Punto has some experience in center field but his defense there is average at best and he doesn't give you much on offense. Jason Tyner will likely be in the Twins' minor league system and would be an option if Hunter went down.
As long as he can stay healthy this season, and presuming Morneau is able to show decent improvement at the plate, I can see Hunter posting a line of around .275/.335/.465 with 25 home runs and 85 RBI. He could also steal upwards of 30 bases if the Twins are as aggressive on the bases with him as they were last year.