Jim Souhan: An unhappy adieu, but a wise decision

  • Article by: Jim Souhan
  • Star Tribune
  • November 22, 2007 - 8:56 PM

Call Carl Pohlad cheap. Call the Twins feeble. Call new General Manager Bill Smith overmatched, or simply invoke his nickname, "Mr. No."

Torii Hunter's departure for Los Angeles makes the Twins look penurious. Hunter is a magnetic star in his prime leaving a franchise that promised to use its new stadium to keep its best players in Twinstripes, so the Pohlads and his fledgling front office will take a flogging.

They shouldn't. The Twins were right to let Hunter leave, and he didn't intend to stay, regardless of the public relations campaign staged by both sides.

A billionaire owner running a profitable team that will enter a new stadium in 2010 can afford $90 million over five years for a power-hitting center fielder. That doesn't make it a wise investment.

Big-money, long-term contracts can destroy a franchise. Hunter insisted on a five- or six-year contract. The Twins didn't mind paying Hunter $15 million a year while he's in his prime; they balked at paying even more for a 36-year-old corner outfielder with a battered body, which is what Hunter figures to be in 2011.

Any self-respecting fan in town would rather see Hunter in a Twins uniform, and fears seeing this pathetic lineup without his bat. But signing him would have meant paying a high percentage of the payroll to one player.

That rarely works in baseball, and it wasn't likely to work on a mediocre team with payroll restrictions.

Most likely, Hunter would have helped the Twins hover near .500 the next two or three years, then become a financial millstone.

Pay no attention to the details of the negotiations. Don't worry about who did or didn't call whom. Hunter wanted a five-year deal to play on a grass field for a team with championship aspirations. The Twins never qualified.

If the Twins are to be second-guessed, they should be second-guessed over their decisions in July, not November. Knowing they weren't going to sign Hunter to a long-term deal, the Twins had two choices at the trading deadline:

• Concede that this would be their last pennant race with Hunter and Johan Santana in the fold, and sell out to try to win in 2007. That would have meant keeping Luis Castillo and adding a power arm and a power bat, which then-GM Terry Ryan said was impossible to do at the time. Or ...

• Concede that the 2007 team wasn't good or deep enough, and trade Hunter and Carlos Silva, among others, at the deadline.

Instead, the Twins served neither their immediate nor long-term plans, trading Castillo for little value, and failing to acquire players who could help either immediately or in the future.

Which makes it imperative that they make Johan Santana their new-millennium Frank Viola, and trade him for players who can help them contend in the new stadium.

Keep Santana, and he will consume a huge percentage of the payroll and, every five days, will have a chance to lose 3-2.

Hunter's depature means there are no front-line players remaining from the 2002 team that broke the Twins' playoff drought. They blew it when they let David Ortiz go; otherwise, their decisions have been vindicated.

Doug Mientkiewicz, Luis Rivas, Cristian Guzman, Corey Koskie, Jacque Jones, A.J. Pierzynski, Eddie Guardado, LaTroy Hawkins, Eric Milton and Joe Mays all were cut loose when they became more expensive than they were worth.

At $90 million for a 32-year-old, Hunter now is more expensive, in the context of a middle-market team with payroll limits, than he is worth.

No need to get emotional -- Hunter is a wonderful guy and was a fine player for the Twins, and they were right to let him go.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. •

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