The Debate Behind Hunter's Option

Throughout much of the 2006 season, there was much debate about the value of Torii Hunter. The big question was, "Should the Twins pick up the $12 million option for 2007 on Torii Hunter's contract?" To answer the question, a few other questions must be asked.

1. Is Torii Hunter really worth $12 million?
2. Is Torii Hunter really worth $12 million on the market?
3. Is Torii Hunter really worth 17-18% of the Twins 2007 payroll?

Let's answer these questions in order.

1. Is Torii Hunter really worth $12 million?

Of course, the answer to that question is strictly relative. To those of us who live paycheck to paycheck, the concept of someone making that much money seems a little ridiculous, doesn't it? I mean, to get paid that much money to "play a game" and "travel for free all around the country" is just silly!

However, too many people forget that Major League Baseball is doing quite well right now. Billion dollar contracts with network television and local and satellite radio outlets dictate that if owners are going to make a lot of money, players deserve a lot of money too.

In other words, the simple question of a player's worth is really relative. But relative to what?

2. Is Torii Hunter really worth $12 million on the market?

This is really the key question. Compared to what other Centerfielders are making, is Torii Hunter making $12 million really out of bounds.

In August, when Hunter was going through another average offensive season, coming off an injury and not making the defensive plays that we were accustomed to, the answer was clearly "No!"

At the end of the regular season, after a September during which he hit .314/.328/.576 with nine home runs and 27 RBI, the answer became a little more cloudy to some. Hunter was a huge cog in the Twins playoff run in the last month.

Although it was still debatable if he was really worth $12 million, General Manager Terry Ryan decided to reward Hunter by picking up the 2007 option.

Well, since the end of the postseason and the beginning of the Hot Stove League, things have changed again. In the last two weeks, several signings have changed the thinking. First, it was the Chicago Cubs signing Alfonso Soriano to a very controversial eight year, $136 contract. That is an average of $17 million until Soriano is 38 years old! Offensively, Soriano is clearly much better than Hunter. Neither has much plate discipline, but Soriano is far superior in terms of power and speed. Where Hunter has the advantage is defensively where Hunter is Gold Glove caliber and Soriano is still learning to play the OF. I don't think that anyone really has a problem with the average salary for Soriano, but eight years is a ridiculously long time.

Next, the Los Angeles Dodgers added Juan Pierre to their roster, enticing him with a five year, $45 million contract. Now, Pierre is just 29 years old, young for a free agent, but that is a lot of money for a guy with really just two qualities. First, he plays every day, 162 games each of the past four seasons. His other skill is an ability to steal bases. He has stolen no fewer than 45 bases each of the last six seasons. Of course as a leadoff hitter and a base stealer, one of the most important abilities he should have is getting on base. Only twice in his seven big league seasons has he had an on-base percentage over .361, never over .380! In his last two seasons, he has been on base just 32.8% of the time. Defensively, Pierre is about an average fielder with a weak arm. Worth $9 million a year for five years? I don't think so!

Finally, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim gave a five year, $50 million contract to Gary Matthews, Jr. The 32 year old has spent parts of the past eight seasons in the big leagues, with seven different teams. The last two and a half have been with the Texas Rangers, and 2006 was his first year that he was a full-time player. He came through with a strong .313/.371/.495 season with 44 doubles, six triples, 19 homers and 79 RBI. In his career, he has hit .263/.336/.419 hitter. He has shown some power and steals a few bases. He is a tremendous defensive centerfielder who should have won a 2006 Gold Glove. Basically, he is Torii Hunter without the track record, coming off of a big season in his free agent year playing half of his games in hitter-friendly Arlington. Does he have the ability to earn $10 million a year? Probably, but then why hasn't he shown it before?

Based on these three large contract centerfielder signings in the last month, I think that it is fair to say that IN THIS MARKET, Torii Hunter is worth $12 million.

That just leaves one more question to answer.

3. Is Torii Hunter really worth 17-18% of the Twins 2007 payroll?

That is likely the most important question out there. Well, to know the answer to that, we must know what we are talking about on the whole. The Twins will likely have a payroll in the $65-70 million range again in 2007. Even with the bigger pool of money coming in to teams right now, I don't anticipate that the Twins will spend a large amount more in 2007. We also need to know where the rest of the money is being spent. So far, we know the values of the 2007 contracts for Hunter, Johan Santana ($12 million), Luis Castillo ($5.75 million), Joe Nathan ($5.25 million), Dennys Reyes ($1 million) and Mike Redmond ($900,000). That is $36.9 million, or already 53-57 percent of the team's payroll, for six players. We also know that Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer are all due some large raises through arbitration. If we make an assumption that each will average making $4.5 million in 2007 (and this may be a little low), that is another $13.5 million. That is approximately also what Carlos Silva's option went for. That brings us to $54.5 million or 78-82 percent of the team's payroll for ten players. That leaves about 20% ($10.5-15.5 million) of the payroll for the other 15 spots on the roster. Juan Rincon is set to make about $3 million in arbitration, and Nick Punto will likely make about $1.5-2 million, but the remaining spots will likely be held down by pre-arbitration players meaning they will all make approximately $400,000. That is just $5.2 million.

In other words, the Twins can afford to retain Torii Hunter at $12 million in 2007. They will even have enough wiggle room within their budget to afford one or two players in the $4-5 million price range.

The key is that the Twins do not reward Hunter with a contract extension at those dollars. First, he has fought injuries the last couple of years and playing on the Metrodome's turf does not help him at all. Let's remember his track record, that of slightly above average offensive centerfielder and premium defensive centerfielder. Let's then remember that as big as the raises for the likes of Mauer, Morneau and Cuddyer will be in 2007, they will be almost as big in 2008 and beyond. Coupled with more players coming arbitration-eligible, and Terry Ryan will have a lot of decisions to make each year on which players to retain and which to let go.

He will need to have an adequate centerfielder available in 2008. But for 2007, the Twins have arguably done well to pick up that monstrous $12 million 2007 option on Torii Hunter's contract. Of course, with the market for centerfielders as it is and several teams still needing one, is it possible that Hunter could be quite marketable in trade talks right now? What do you think?

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