Saturday, November 24, 2007

Torii Hunter Gets His Halo and Some Money

A little less than a month ago, it looked like we might be coming up on one of the most active offseasons in several years. Alex Rodriguez was on the move, and Miguel Cabrera and Johan Santana were heavily rumored to be traded. That's three of baseball's ten best players. Now, Rodriguez is still a Yankee, and the Twins seem to be pushing harder to get an extension for Santana - only Cabrera still seems very likely to be moving. Through Thanksgiving, the biggest player move was the Angels signing Torii Hunter to a 5 year contract worth between $80 and $90M, a move that has been widely panned. The more I look at it, I'm not totally sure why.

At first I was a bit skeptical myself. My range of thoughts were "whoa, isn't that a lot of money?" "Didn't they just sign Gary Matthews to a huge contract to play center field last season?" "Sure, Hunter may be a great defensive player, but don't the Angels need to do a better job of scoring runs rather than preventing them?" "Is Hunter still going to be holding up at age 36, which is where he'll be in year five?"

1. "Whoa, isn't that a lot of money?"
Well of course it's a lot of money. It's more money than I and everyone who ever reads this will see in their lifetime. But for a baseball player, that's just about where the market is. Compare to last offseason, where two outfielders signed megadeals, much bigger than Hunter's. Alfonso Soriano signed an 8 year, $136M contract, while Vernon Wells got 7 years, $126M. Annually, these are about the same as Hunter's deal, without those extra years at the back end, which bears mention because Hunter is older than the other two. For comparison's sake, Hunter blows Wells straight out of the water. Defensively, even though he's three years older, Hunter still covers more ground, and offensively, he's the far more consistent player. Even if Wells is having that excellent year he has once every three, he's only slightly better than what Hunter has been consistently doing.

What about Soriano? There probably isn't a player in baseball whose value is debated more than Alfonso Soriano (the only other candidates would be Derek Jeter and Barry Bonds). Some see Soriano as a 5-tool superstar, one of the elite players in the game, while others peg him as one-dimensional and totally overrate. Hunter, on the other hand, is generally regarded as a solid veteran, a good defensive player, who can make an all-star team in his best seasons. But really, Hunter and Soriano are pretty similar players offensively. Soriano's quick bat generates more power, but generally they're both guys who will hit about .290 with a .335 OBP and good power. Soriano's extra power is made up for with Hunter's signifacnt defensive value. Even if Hunter is only an average CF, an average fielding CF is MUCH more valuable than an average fielding LF who hits about the same, because the standard for what an average CF is stands so high. Of course, Hunter is not an average defensive CF. He's not the human highlight reel he was in his 20's, but he still gets a good jump on the ball, throws well, and has plus speed.

The Angels, meanwhile, are in a good position to spend this sort of money. Bartolo Colon's fat, umm, contract is off the books, and they look to be starting a good, young, low-cost infield of Wood, Aybar, Kendrick and Kotchman next year. The Angels could afford to overspend on another position. Which, taken in terms of the past two offseasons, they certainly have on center field. Which brings us to...

2. "Didn't they just sign Gary Matthews to a huge contract to play center field last season?"
Anyone who watches the NFL knows about the Detroit Lions draft day decision. Heading in, there was a lot of speculation that they would take Georgia Tech WR Calvin Johnson. That possibility was often ridiculed, as the Lions had taken WRs with three consecutive first rounders from 2003-2005, only one of whom turned into any value. How could they take another WR, after they wasted those other two picks on the position. Of course, they drafted Johnson, and he is having a productive season for a Lions team that is 6-5 and has a solid chance to make the playoffs for the first time since the Clinton administration.

I'm guessing most of you can see where I'm going with this analogy. Charles Rogers and Mike Williams were sunk cost for the Lions. They couldn't undo those mistakes, but they didn't let that cold truth handcuff them into not adding another player who they thought they could help their team. The Angels overpaid for Gary Matthews, then watched him go through a mediocre season. Torii Hunter is a marked improvement over Matthews, probably worth something in the neighborhood of two to four additional wins with his bat. That Matthews is going to make all that money doesn't make the Hunter signing a mistake. It does highlight that the Matthews signing wasn't the answer, and kudos to the Angels for recognizing that and improving their team.

Plus, it's not as if Matthews is completely without value to the Angels at this point. If he can give days off to Hunter every so often, and to the corner outfielders more frequently. If Matthews hits enough to allow Vlad to DH occassionally, Matthews can probably get five starts a week with everyone healthy, plus defensive replacement and pinch hitting duty. On top of that, it should make it so Vlad isn't so worn out at the end of the year. It wouldn't be all that surprising to see both Matthews and Hunter tally 500 plate appearances this year.

3. "Sure, Hunter may be a great defensive player, but don't the Angels need to do a better job of scoring runs rather than preventing them?"
The simple answer is no, they don't. Just because the team is already good at preventing runs doesn't mean they shouldn't try to prevent less. In fact, for a team like this that scores and allows few runs, allowing fewer is a bigger deal than a high scoring/high allowance team scoring a few more runs. In the case of the Angels, their margin of victory was often going to be thin, because of the average-ish offense. That makes preventing a few runs here and there all the more valuable, and Hunter should still be up to that task.

That answers the theoretical side of the question. The point more valid here is that Torii Hunter makes the Angels better at scoring runs as well. Sure, his .336 OBP last year is nothing spectacular, and he will certainly make his share of outs. The Angels needed to add power, however, and Hunter has more of that than most people seem to realize. There were only five players in the American League with more extra base hits in 2007 than Torii Hunter's 74: David Ortiz (88), Alex Rodriguez (85), Curtis Granderson (84), Magglio Ordonez (82) and Carlos Pena (76). Even if he loses a dozen of those moving into a pitchers park, he's be a huge boost in Los Angeles of Anaheim, where only Vlad Guerrero and Casey Kotchman had more than 50.

4. "Is Hunter still going to be holding up at age 36, which is where he'll be in year five?"
This one is the toughest one to answer. We just don't have any way of knowing yet. Highly athletic players tend to age better than big bruisers, but will Hunter's all-out style of play catch up with him? He hasn't been a stranger to the disabled list in his career, and the guys that lists as statistically comparable isn't very promising: Bobby Bonilla and Bobby Thompson had their last good seasons at 34, Kevin McReynolds at 32. Joe Carter's bat did hold up, hitting 25+ homers every year through age 36, but that's a bit of a strange list. I didn't think there was any way I'd ever compare Torii Hunter to Bobby Bonilla, who was notoriously bad defensively.

If Hutner's power this year was not a fluke, then he'll be a value throughout the contract, as even as his defense starts to erode, he's still a better hitter than Garrett Anderson has been the last two years, and the Angels won the division handily this year with him. With the talent that was out there, Hunter was a reasonable gamble. Unlike Matthews though, if Hunter tanks, the Angels are going to have a much tougher time swallowing it.