12.03.2014

The Battle over Torii Hunter




He's back. Torii Hunter is back, and in the 7 hours of his official presence in a Twins line-up again there are two clear camps in response to his return.


In the blue corner, weighing in at 140 characters, 140,000 grey hairs in the last four seasons and 140 million liters of digital ink are the analytically minded, podcast savvy, SABR-metrical, writers, critics and yes...fans who wonder what the heck the Pohlad's were thinking.

"This is not the Torii Hunter we fell in love with," they remind readers, listeners, viewers and random passers-by.

He is not the defensive wunderkind we saw steal homers from Barry Bonds, he's not even the workman-like defender we saw handle Eduardo Escobar pop outs in Anaheim and Detroit. He has struggled lately, and one thing the Twins outfield does not want for is corner outfielders who struggle defensively (see: Arcia, Oswaldo; Willingham, Josh; Nunez, Eduardo Freaking)

The Torii we came to know and love was prone to gaps in his approach at the plate, always good but never quite great. While that also changed in the years he was away, 39 year-old Torii may not be able to maintain that production. And as younger talents vie for playing time, the curious sight of an aging corner outfielder with declining production and defensive value getting constant playing time and clinging to his no-trade clause becomes all the more questionable.

This is not the mega-watt smiling, do-no-wrong, clubhouse hero either. One afternoon worth of press coverage seemed to confirm that. Claiming that "whoever believes in that SABR-metric stuff never played the game" (despite the successful A's GM/former first round draft pick/former Minnesota Twin Billy Beane being a leader in the field) did not allay the fears of the analytically minded writers in the room and at home. Hunter then proceeded to call Mike Bernadino of the Pioneer Press, "a prick" four times, because Bernadino asked about how his opposition to gay marriage may have affected his free agency and may yet affect his leadership. Only Kris Humphries had a shorter honeymoon.

So, says the camp in the blue corner, "this is not the Torii Hunter we fell in love with." Defensively, offensively, socially: it's different now. But there is another side to this.

In the red corner, weighing in at $221 million dollars in revenue, 73,000 household wide television audience, and four straight 90 loss seasons is the Twins front office who wonder "what the heck's the problem?"

Loathe as we writers may be to admit it, the front office can see and know these issues. They may not believe in defensive metrics, but they know a 39-year-old outfielder is going to be less effective than the 32-year-old they last had in uniform. They may not project many stat-lines, but they saw enough of Jim Thome (not to mention Tony Batista, Shannon Stewart, and Dave Winfield) to know that a 39-year-old hitter isn't a 32-year-old hitter. And while Hunter's not keen to talk about his beliefs, the ownership isn't exactly shy about theirs (leading the list of contributors to the anti-gay marriage amendment in 2012).

Heck, they'd probably take mummified
Torii Hunter
The Twins brass knows that this is not the old Torii Hunter, and they do not care, they want this Torii Hunter.

Bear in mind, the Twins are not just in the business of fielding a winning baseball team, they're in the business of making money. To be sure, the best teams make the most money, but even the worst teams can make some.

If you're a business and you know your most loyal customers will come back again and again even when they are dumbstruck and aghast at your decision making, you know that you can make "dumb" and "ghastly" decisions again and again. Their opinion doesn't matter. They'll keep coming--even if only to complain.

What matters is the undecided, the ambivalent, the apathetic customers, ones that you may have lost in the lean years and can bring back (even briefly now). Last year the biggest crowd at Target Field (36,952 to watch the Yankees on July 4th) wouldn't have been in the top 8 home crowds of the 2013 season--when the team was even worse. Sure a great team would solve that problem, but we aren't going to get a great team over night, so let's appreciate what we can have: a beloved local legend on a farewell tour (you saw the crowds for Jeter/Rivera? Torii might only get a tenth of that...but that's a lot better than the Twins have drawn recently).

And even if you don't see this as a cold, callous and calculated business decision, you can appreciate it as a comfortable move at a time of great uncertainty. There's a new manager, a bevy of new talent in the wings, the team is in flux and adding one familiar face, beloved by the front office, admired by the layman fan base, is a way to ease the transition from one regime to the next.

You may not believe the "clubhouse leadership" lines, you may not buy the "mentorship" lines, but what you buy and what you don't is moot now. The Twins bought Torii Hunter 2014, not 2011 or 2007, and they wanted to do that. If it fails, it fails, but if it excites a few absentee fans, if it eases the transition and if it supports the next generation of outfielders, then it's worth it.

Call it Twins Teri-Torii, call him Torii-Wan Kenobi, but above all else, call it what it is. A decision that was made (past tense), as fiercely as we may fight about it, argue about it and debate it, the results won't be known until next spring and summer. (Even then since the arguments are being made in different directions, there not be a winner. Maybe Tori'll be terrible and bring in fans/make the clubhouse brighter, or maybe he'll be great on the field and as insignificant as Jason Bartlett in the annals of Twins reunions gone by. We can all be right, we can all be wrong!)

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