When Torii Hunter tracks a fly ball, there's a level of certainty. No such certainty exists as the Twins center fielder enters free agency.
BRIAN PETERSON ¥ email@example.comMinneapolis, MN - 9/23/2007Twins - White SoxTwins centerfielder Torii Hunter tips his hat to the cheering fans as he leaves the field in the 9th inning. This could be Hunters last home game as a Minnesota Twin.
It was only 15 years ago, but for the Twins it was a much simpler time.
They were trying to keep a free-agent center fielder -- a 32-year-old, with six Gold Gloves -- just like Torii Hunter now.
His name was Kirby Puckett, and he danced the free-agent dance, visiting the Philadelphia Phillies and Boston Red Sox.
But then Kirby and Tonya Puckett had dinner at Carl and Eloise Pohlad's house. And then, on Dec. 4, 1994, Christmas came early.
The Twins signed Puckett to a five-year, $30 million contract, the second-richest in baseball behind Cal Ripken's five-year, $32.5 million deal.
Andy MacPhail, then the Twins general manager, stayed in Minnesota for the big news conference while his top lieutenants -- Terry Ryan, Bill Smith and Larry Corrigan -- went to the winter meetings in Louisville, Ky.
Upon arriving, Ryan said, "Now that Kirby's back, we don't have to spend time looking for a Gold Glove center fielder who will hit .350."
If only it were that easy now.
The free-agent market has changed drastically. Soon, Hunter could be headed elsewhere, with significantly more cash.
The current standoff
Hunter rejected a three-year, $45 million offer from the Twins in August, and the sides haven't spoken much since.
Minnesota has exclusive negotiating rights until Nov. 13, when other teams can begin making formal offers, but Hunter said he would like to see what's out there before resuming talks with the Twins.
"It's not necessarily goodbye to the Twins because I filed for free agency," Hunter said. "I'm still watching to see what they do."
Hunter said this goes way beyond his own contract. Because of their payroll restrictions, he's concerned about the Twins' ability to keep him while still fielding enough talent around him to win a World Series.
He wants at least a five-year deal. Industry insiders think his contract could reach $90 million.
Chicago White Sox GM Kenny Williams plans to meet with Hunter in person. The Texas Rangers and Houston Astros are among the other expected suitors, and news of more will probably surface soon, with the GM meetings starting Monday in Orlando.
"It's Torii's right to be a free agent," said Bert Blyleven, a Twins TV analyst. "He's worked his tail off to get there. And the thing about Torii is he plays hurt. He's just a gamer, as Puck was.
"The things [Hunter] does off the field, you can't really put a monetary value on that, with his attitude and what he means to the guys in the clubhouse."
Blyleven remembers the 1992 Puckett negotiations, how the center fielder sampled the market and how the Twins nearly matched his best offer.
"Hopefully, we can come around and match or come close to whatever else [Hunter] gets out there, and maybe let Torii decide then," Blyleven said. "As long as the Twins are in the picture, I think that will help the fans, knowing the Twins gave their best effort."
Prices have continued skyrocketing, however.
In December, the Toronto Blue Jays signed center fielder Vernon Wells to a seven-year, $126 million extension. In July, the Seattle Mariners gave center fielder Ichiro Suzuki a five-year, $90 million extension.
One can argue that both are better players. But unlike Hunter, neither reached free agency, so neither was the subject of a bidding war.
Hunter isn't the only center fielder on this year's market. That list also includes Andruw Jones, Aaron Rowand and Mike Cameron, though Cameron must serve a 25-game suspension to start next season.
Hunter's agent, Larry Reynolds, said he doesn't think the large supply of free-agent center fielders will lower the demand. He also doesn't think age will work against Hunter, even though Jones and Rowand are younger.
"If a guy takes care of himself, then [age] shouldn't be that big of an issue," Reynolds said.
He pointed to Alex Rodriguez, who at age 32 is reportedly seeking a $350 million contract.
"They're talking about 10 years for A-Rod and not even thinking twice," Reynolds said. "He came out [of the draft] the same year [as Hunter], and they're the same age. There are a number of guys who are playing until they're 38-40 years old now, and even longer."
Still, the recent track record for high-paid center fielders isn't glowing. The New York Yankees signed Johnny Damon to a four-year, $52 million contract two years ago, when he was 32. This year, they moved him to left field.
Gary Matthews, 33, regressed this year after signing his five-year, $50 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels last November. Even Wells, who signed his deal at 28, struggled, batting .245 for the Blue Jays.
In 1992, Puckett was actually listed at age 31, but his birth year was later found to be 1960 instead of 1961. Nonetheless, he was a star. He had finished second in the voting for American League Most Valuable Player that season and won his sixth Gold Glove.
The Twins never regretted his last contract. Puckett didn't win another Gold Glove and actually moved from center to right field in 1994. But in his final three seasons, he batted .308 with an average of 22 homers and 100 RBI before glaucoma cut short his career in 1996.
"People say 32 is old; it's not old," Hunter said. "I feel like I can beat anybody now. And when I'm 36 or 37, I could move to right field and still make plays."
A PR nightmare?
By retaining Puckett, the Twins kept the face of their franchise.
Hunter became the new face earlier this decade, though he now shares that mantle with Johan Santana, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau.
How big of a public relations hit would the Twins take if they lost Hunter? That depends partly on their other moves, said Dave Mona, a former Twins beat writer for the Minneapolis Tribune and the chairman of Weber Shandwick, the region's largest PR firm.
Another major question facing the Twins is whether they will trade Santana, a free agent after 2008.
"If they got nobody in return for Santana and lost Hunter, I think people would say, 'I don't get this. They're going into the new ballpark [in 2010]. They've got the additional revenue coming. These two moves seem inconsistent with where they're doing.' "
Mona, a longtime WCCO-AM radio host, said with no disrespect to Hunter that the impact of losing him wouldn't be the same as losing Puckett.
"I think there's an appreciation for Torii Hunter, but people in Minnesota are incredibly practical," Mona said. "It's part of that Scandinavian heritage. They're going to say, 'That's a lot of money [to keep Hunter].'
"There will come a point where they'll understand, but only if the Twins make additional moves."
Smith, who was an assistant under MacPhail and then Ryan before becoming GM last month, said the new ballpark's approval hasn't added pressure to keep Hunter.
"I think our No. 1 goal is to keep this team competitive in the short term and in the long term," he said. "Sometimes you have to compromise one to get the other."
While continuing to praise Hunter, Smith picked his words carefully this past week.
"He's been a tremendous part of this organization," Smith said. "I don't want to speak in the past tense because I still hope he stays in this organization."
Moments later, Smith added: "He was a big part of the renaissance of this franchise, and I will always respect him for that."
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