Seventeen years after his major league debut, Torii Hunter is headed back to the place where it all began. On Tuesday night, the veteran outfielder reportedly signed a one-year, $10.5 million deal with the Minnesota Twins, reuniting him with the team that drafted him in the first round way back in 1993 and with which he spent 11 seasons.
"It's just the right fit," Hunter told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "This is home. It's time for me to come home and be fruitful and also to win."
The return to Minnesota is a surprising choice for Hunter, who was drawing strong interest from the Rangers and was also on the radar of the Orioles, Royals and Mariners. Set to turn 40 next season, Hunter likely won't have many more opportunities to pick up the World Series ring that has eluded him in his long career, and the Twins are unlikely to give him that shot. Minnesota finished a dismal 70-92 last year, 20 games back of Hunter's former team, the Tigers, in the AL Central. The Twins have lost 90-plus games for four straight years, and last season's losing effort cost manager Ron Gardenhire his job after 13 years at the helm.
There isn't much to suggest that the 2015 Twins will come any closer to the playoffs than the last four editions. Minnesota's starting rotation posted a horrific 5.06 ERA last season and remains a mess, with only Phil Hughes a good bet to provide above-average production next year. The injury-plagued Joe Mauer is coming off one of the worst seasons of his career and is another year older, and the team's top prospects, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, missed lots of development time in 2014 due to injuries.
It's also a curious decision on the part of the Twins. As noted above, Minnesota's biggest problem last season was pitching, with the team foolishly weighing itself down with long-term deals for Ricky Nolasco and Mike Pelfrey. Offensively, the Twins were one of the majors' better teams in 2014, scoring 4.38 runs per game, fifth-best in the AL. What's more, Minnesota already has a capable right fielder in Oswaldo Arcia, a 23-year-old who bopped an impressive 20 homers in just 372 at-bats last year.
Arcia is no great shakes defensively, registering a -9 DRS over 1,083 career innings in right. But it's not as if the Twins are getting the mid-2000s version of Hunter, the one who racked up nine straight Gold Gloves as one of the league's best center fielders. The current iteration of Hunter graded out as a putrid fielder last year, posting a -17 DRS in right for Detroit, and has registered just one season with a positive DRS since 2011. Hunter has clearly lost a step defensively, and with the right field dimensions at Target Field not differing too much from those at Comerica Park, he won't have any easier a time tracking balls down there.
It's clear, then, that the Twins signed Hunter for two reasons: his bat and his veteran presence. Despite his age, Hunter remains an above-average force at the plate. His .286/.319/.446 line in 2014 translated to a 111 OPS+, the 11th straight season that Hunter has posted an OPS+ above 100. With Arcia likely to move to left for 2015 and Danny Santana (130 OPS+ in 430 plate appearances) set to return as the regular center fielder, Hunter's signing should give the Twins an above-average outfield offensively.
The Twins are likely also hoping that Hunter can be a clubhouse leader and mentor for a team with key young players in Arcia, Santana, Aaron Hicks and Kennys Vargas, with Buxton a possibility (albeit a slim one) to spend time in Minnesota in 2015 as well. Hunter could also help the team's transition from Gardenhire to new skipper Paul Molitor, who has no managerial experience at any level. Hunter and Molitor have some familiarity with one another, too. They were nominally teammates, with Hunter playing a smattering of games during Molitor's final two seasons with the Twins in 1997 and '98, and when Molitor was the Twins' bench coach in 2000 and '01.
As far as moves go, signing Hunter isn't a bad one by the Twins. A one-year deal on just $10.5 million won't hamstring them financially or for the future, and the return of Hunter to the city where he established himself will make for some good PR. For a team that inspired little hope and less interest last year, a feel-good story like that should help put people in the seats. But Twins fans shouldn't expect Hunter's return to result in either him or Minnesota reliving the glory days of a decade ago.