Twins Sign Torii Hunter, Are Unrelatedly Interesting

Last night, the Twins signed outfielder Torii Hunter to a one-year, $10.5 million contract, presumably to end his career. Hunter will play right field in Minnesota, the same place where he made his debut as a center fielder in 1997.

The move really doesn’t mean much. The Twins had somewhere in the vicinity of $10-$20 million of available cap space, and they’re not a team that has a realistic chance to contend in 2015. It’s an understandable fit as a reunion tour signing, and that’s essentially what this is, as Dave Cameron noted in his instant analysis of the move last night.

The Twins signing Torii Hunter probably doesn’t need an entire post for itself. Hunter is 39 years old and he’s coming off a season in which he was worth just 0.3 WAR. He posted his worst wRC+ in nearly a decade, his worst OBP in over a decade, and his outfield defense appears to have declined to an almost unbearable level. Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating each agreed that Hunter’s defense in right field was worth -18 runs last season, both MLB-worsts in right. Of course, defensive metrics in one-year samples are noisy, and we can’t expect Hunter to be quite as bad in 2015, but it’s hard to imagine him being anything but a negative defender at this point in his career.

But again, this signing wasn’t so much about Torii Hunter’s production or the Twins winning in 2015. It was more about holding the fans over, and maybe drawing a few more back in, for 2016 – when things could actually start mattering again.

Torii Hunter’s prime seasons in Minnesota are remembered fondly. From 2001-07 – the final seven years of Hunter’s first stint in the organization – the Twins averaged 88 wins a season and won the division four times. They never advanced past the ALCS, but it was a winning franchise. Even after Hunter left, the Twins experienced success as recently as 2009 and 2010 with consecutive division titles. Since then, it’s been ugly. Four consecutive 90-loss seasons earned manager Ron Gardenhire the boot and attendance has dropped from 39,000 to 28,000 in that span.

For 2015, things look better, but they don’t look great. By our depth charts, the Twins are currently projected as the 20th team in the MLB. Last year, the 20th team finished 77-85. But a few interesting things are going to happen in Minnesota this year that are unrelated to the team’s actual performance. First, obviously, Hunter will play the outfield, invoking memories for longtime Twins fans of better teams in years past. Second, it’s likely that top prospects Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano will make their MLB debuts. All of these things are exciting for a fanbase that hasn’t had a reason to be excited in half a decade.

And that excitement is warranted. Buxton is the consensus top prospect in baseball. Sano is in the top 10 and has true 80-grade raw power, according to our Kiley McDaniel. So long as their 2015 debuts aren’t met with disaster or delay, Buxton and Sano should be starting for the Twins in 2016. Realistically, this team is probably better suited to compete starting in 2017, but it’s not too hard to imagine this being a pretty decent team as soon as 2016.

Thanks to the great Dan Szymborski, I’ve got 2016 ZiPS projections for the brunt of the Twins core. Let’s examine what that team could look like, as well as salary commitments.

  • Catcher: Kurt Suzuki / platoon. WAR: +3. Cost: $6M
  • First base: Joe Mauer. WAR: +2. Cost: $23M
  • Second base: Brian Dozier. WAR: +2.5. Cost: $~3M (Arb1)
  • Third base: Miguel Sano. WAR: +3.5. Cost: $500,000 (Min.)
  • Shortstop: Danny Santana. WAR: +2.5. Cost: $500,000 (Min.)
  • Left field: Trevor Plouffe? WAR: +1.5. Cost: $~5M (Arb3)
  • Center field: Byron Buxton. WAR: +4. Cost: $500,000 (Min.)
  • Right field: Oswaldo Arcia. WAR: +2. Cost: $500,000 (Min.)
  • Designated Hitter: Kennys Vargas. WAR: +1.5. Cost: $500,000 (Min.)
  • Total WAR: +22.5. Total cost: $39.5M

So, that’s not a bad core of position players. You’re looking at a lineup that lacks true star power, but is without any true holes, which has its value. Factor in a bench that likely includes some combination of Josmil Pinto, Eduardo Escobar, Aaron Hicks and Jorge Polanco and you can factor in another win or so for about $3 million. For a total of about $42.5 million, we’re left with a group of position players projected for around +23.5 WAR. This year’s Twins position players are projected for +19.3 WAR, and that’s a four-win swing.

Then, the pitching side of things:

  • SP1: Phil Hughes. WAR: +2.5. Cost: $8M
  • SP2: Kyle Gibson. WAR: +2. Cost: $500,000 (Min.)
  • SP3: Ricky Nolasco. WAR: +1.5. Cost: $12M.
  • SP4: Alex Meyer. WAR: +1.0. Cost: $500,000 (Min.)
  • SP5: Jose Berrios? WAR: +1.0. Cost: $500,000 (Min.)
  • RP: Glen Perkins. WAR: +1.5. Cost: $6.3M.
  • Rest of pen: ???. WAR: +0.5. Cost: $3M (Min.)
  • Total WAR: +10. Total cost: $30.8M

The pitching, as it is this year, is underwhelming. These projections, of course, are all rough estimates and are still more than a year away, but we’re already at a team total of +33.5 WAR. Right now, on our depth charts, that’s more than the Yankees and the Giants. That’s within a win of the Orioles and Indians, and within a win and a half of the Dodgers.

And here’s the other thing: thanks to the Twins in-house rebuilding strategy, they have a wealth of young, cost-controlled talent. This entire unit, which projects to be at least a .500 team as early as 2016, is only on the books for $73.3 million. The Twins operated with a payroll of $85 million last year, and operated on a budget as high as $113 million as recently 2011. Team president Dave St. Peter is on the record as saying payroll won’t change much in 2015, but again, the Twins aren’t about 2015. It doesn’t make sense to raise the payroll in 2015. They’re about 2016 and beyond. And the better the product gets on the field, the more it makes sense to spend money.

The Twins likely won’t reach the $113 million from 2011, but they reached $95 million as recently as last offseason, and operated at $100 million in both 2010 and 2012. Considering they’re on the books for just about $73 million for 2016, they could realistically have anywhere between $2o-30 million to play with for the 2016 offseason. If they want to add a pitcher, that year’s free agent class includes names like Mat Latos, Johnny Cueto, Rick Porcello, Doug Fister, Jordan Zimmermann and Ian Kennedy, among others.

The Twins aren’t known for spending big on the free agent market, so perhaps they’d rather acquire a premium talent to go alongside their core of Buxton, Sano and Dozier through trade. With all the young, cost-controlled talent the Twins possess, guys like Plouffe, Santana, Escobar and Polanco all seem like reasonable trade bait. And as Dave touched upon yesterday, perhaps our perception of what it takes to get a star player via trade doesn’t reflect the market, and a package including a couple of those guys could net a decent return. In addition to cap space, the Twins have the assets required to make a splash in the trade market.

Of course, by projecting more than a year into the future, there’s tons of room for error here. Both Buxton and Sano spent most or all of 2014 on the disabled list, so perhaps they don’t come out of the gate as +3-4 win players as forecasted. Perhaps Mauer ages faster than expected and perhaps Dozier’s 2014 was a fluke. At the same time, that can swing the other way, too. Jason Heyward was a 6-win player in his age-22 season and there’s no saying Buxton can’t do the same. Phil Hughes was a 6-win pitcher last year and is projected for just 2.5 wins here. You can quibble with the specific numbers all you want, but that would be missing the point.

The point is: although Hunter and the Twins likely won’t do much again in 2015, hope is on the horizon, and Hunter is simply the face to hold fans over until the hope arrives. The forecasts already see the Twins  as something like a .500 team as soon as 2016, with both cap room and trade assets to make a splash or two that could put them in the discussion for the AL Central. Whether or not the forecasts pan out and whether or not the front office makes those splashes remain to be seen. But there are reasons to be excited about the Twins in the near future, and that’s more that can be said for the past five years.



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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he’s here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.



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Ceej
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Ceej

Should fantasy owners share your confidence in Buxton and Sano debuting in ’15 to the point where they should be snagged now, or wait until next season?

james
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james

They will make an appearance next season barring injury or total ineffectiveness. Both are still pretty raw, and have not played much in the upper minors. I think both spend most of the season in AA, and if they are above average players (they would both be young for AA, so average would be good), they will get a cup of coffee.

2016 they will both compete in spring training for a chance to start (if they lose they will go to AA or AAA). Likely spending a good chunk in AAA, and establishing themselves at the big league level.

2017 they should both be in the bigs as full time starters.

Here are the issues- Both have major injuries in the recent past. Both have a super tool (sano with monster power and Buxton just general athleticism, but i think his highest tool is speed in the 70-75 range). Buxton looks a lot like Maybin, another former top 3 propsect with above average across the board skills, and plus plus speed… and Maybin has had a few decent season, but not a beast. Sano has a similar expectation, the hit tool will determine if he is Mark Reynolds or so much more (that is his realistic floor as a ss/3b with insane power, but that is assuming a 30-35 hit tool, about where Sano would be this season, but he can easily get better there).

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