Just after taking center field in the ninth inning of yesterday's series finale against the White Sox, Torii Hunter was pulled from the game in favor of Jason Tyner. The move by Ron Gardenhire was far from a slight to the longtime Twins' center fielder. It was an acknowledgment of Hunter's nine years of solid service in a Twins uniform, allowing him to jog off the field to an emotional standing ovation from thousands of appreciative Metrodome fans. Hunter entered the dugout and was greeted by high-fives from his teammates and coaches, and shortly thereafter a television camera showed him trotting up a set of stairs and into the Twins' clubhouse. Dick Bremer observed that it could well be the last time Hunter ever climbs those particular stairs in the aftermath of a baseball game. The truth of the matter is that it almost certainly was.
Hunter has had a great season. He is a good bet to set career highs in games played, batting average and on-base percentage. He has already surpassed his previous career highs in hits, doubles, runs batted in and runs scored. Despite his generally streaky tendencies, Hunter has been relatively consistent throughout his career with the Twins, generally hitting around his career averages of .271/.325/.470 with impressive power totals and elite defensive at a crucial position. He plays hard, smiles a lot and speaks his mind (sometimes to a fault). For those reasons, Hunter has been a joy to have around for the past decade and it will be sad to see him go. But, I have little doubt in my mind that yesterday I watched him walk off that Metrodome field and into the Twins' clubhouse for the last time.
Many people have tried to argue that the Twins have a good shot at keeping Hunter. One of the most common points I have heard made by these people is that the team has never let one of their superstars walk for financial reasons. But these people need to wake up and realize that the team's current situation is distinct from any dilemma that has been faced in franchise history. There are too many young players with significant pay raises due over the next several years for it to be feasible to hand a monster contract to a guy who will turn 33 next season. And make no mistake about it... Hunter will be looking for a monster contract. He hasn't been too shy about stating that.
I won't be happy to see Hunter go, and trying to replace his production will be an exceedingly difficult task. But I feel like it would be financially irresponsible for the Twins to offer Hunter anything more than the 3 year/$45 million deal that they reportedly offered earlier in the season. I believe that Hunter is an elite player right now, but I'm very skeptical that he will still be an elite player in three to four years, when he'll still be getting paid like one. For a team working on a budget like the one the Twins are on, and dealing with these types of contract situations, it's almost impossible to justify committing the kind of money to Hunter that he will command, regardless of how popular he may be amongst fans. I believe Bill Smith and the rest of the Twins' front office realize this fact, and that's why I have little doubt in my mind that Hunter has played his last game in a Twins uniform in the Metrodome.