Torii Hunter stood in front of his locker 10 days ago and, as he does every year during his visit to Minnesota, paid homage to his baseball roots.
“I’ll always have a lot of love for this franchise,” the Tigers right fielder said of the Twins organization that drafted and developed him, “even when I’m trying to beat them.”
In that second part, at least, he’s got a lot of company.
As the Twins have turned over their roster the past couple of seasons in order to build with young players, their re cent past has become scattered around the major leagues. When the 2013 season began two weeks ago, 35 players who once wore a Twins uniform were on the rosters of other big-league teams. Another 20 ex-Twins are in the minor leagues of other organizations, trying to work their way back up.
Trying to be Brendan Harris, in other words.
Harris will return to Target Field this week for the first time since he was included in the trade that sent J.J. Hardy to Baltimore after the 2010 season, and his is a story of determination. Acquired in the trade that sent Jason Bartlett to Tampa Bay, he has ultimately outlasted Bartlett, who was released by San Diego last August. At 32 years old, the middle infielder has bounced from team to team since he left Minnesota, playing for a different organization for four straight years, and allowed to leave after each of the past two.
A lot of players might have given up the game after hitting .225 at Norfolk, the Orioles’ Class AAA team, in 2011, but Harris caught on with the Rockies, and had a nice bounce-back season — .317 with nine home runs and 63 RBI while playing about half the time at third base — at their Colorado Springs team. Let go again, Harris signed a minor league deal with the Angels, and his timing was impeccable. Veteran Maicer Izturis left as a free agent, and the Angels needed a utility infielder. With a strong spring, Harris made the Opening Day roster.
“It’s been a big grind,” Harris told the Los Angeles Times of his three-year fight to return to the major leagues, a scramble made worthwhile on Opening Day. “It never gets old,” he said of making the roster. “So I’ve tried to savor each one. I’ve never really taken things for granted.”
Harris, who can pinch-hit and back up all four infield positions, figures to get regular playing time for a while, too, since shortstop Erick Aybar and third baseman Alberto Callaspo have been struck with nagging injuries.
Harris is just the latest player to join a pretty impressive corps of former Twins in the majors, a roster, in fact, that if put together as a unit, might win more games than the current Twins, though they would be depending upon several veteran players on the downsides of their careers. They would be much older and quite a bit more expensive, too — their combined salaries top $125 million this year, and will go up next year when extensions signed by R.A. Dickey and Carlos Gomez kick in.
Harris could play third for the ex-Twins, or perhaps Nick Punto, with the other being a backup. Garrett Jones, Alexi Casilla and Hardy would form the rest of the infield, with David Ortiz, Jason Kubel or Delmon Young acting as designated hitter. A.J. Pierzynski, Wilson Ramos and Henry Blanco give the ex-Twins plenty of catching depth.
There is a surpius of outfieders, thanks to last winter’s trades of Denard Span and Ben Revere, who could form one of the greatest defensive outfields of all time with Gomez. That, however, crowds out Hunter and Michael Cuddyer, proven run producers at the plate; entering Friday, Cuddyer’s seven RBI and Hunter’s six would lead the team. Perhaps Cuddyer could play third base on this imaginary squad.
Dickey, who spent only one season in Minnesota and blossomed into a Cy Young winner last year, would head a starting staff that — imagine that — is injury-plagued. Matt Garza, Johan Santana, Scott Baker and Francisco Liriano are all on the disabled list, leaving Philip Humber, Jason Marquis, Kevin Slowey and Kyle Lohse in the rotation. The bullpen? Joe Nathan would be backed up by plenty of quality setup men, like Jesse Crain, Pat Neshek, Matt Guerrier and Grant Balfour.
Combined, the 14 former Twins position players are batting .294, entering Friday, with 11 home runs and 41 RBI. The 14 non-injured pitchers have a 2-7 record (plus four saves) and a 4.44 ERA that’s plumped up by Dickey’s 8.44 start in Toronto.
It would make for an interesting debate. How many games would the ex-Twins win?