One of the fights you can pick when talking about baseball is about the role of leadership in a team's clubhouse and on the field. Joe Mauer can get criticized for not having a higher profile in that regard, without those making the case having full access to what he does or doesn't do. On the other side are the people who make the case that leadership is based pretty much on performance and performance alone.
The issue is a valid for discussion about the Twins right now because of the arrival of Torii Hunter. When it was announced over the winter, there was one side arguing that it was a unneeded signing, a case of bringing back an aging player who was past his prime. Another side thought the Twins could use the wisdom and experience that Hunter, at age 39, had gathered during this major league career.
Over the weekend, Boston Globe baseball writer Nick Cafardo featured Hunter prominently in a story about clubhouse leadership and "high-character" players..
He cites the Kansas City Royals, coming to Target Field this week to battle the Twins for first-place in the AL Central, and the Royals' quest to replace veteran Raul Ibanez.
Cafardo writes that general manager Dayton Moore "put a full-court press on Torii Hunter, who eventually signed with the Twins, another team looking for a high-character guy. Hunter, according to a group of scouts, GMs, coaches, players, and baseball writers we asked, is the embodiment of a winning player and a leader. He no doubt has made a huge difference for the transformed Twins. The Royals, Mariners, Orioles, and Rangers all competed for Hunter’s services."
Hunter told Cafardo he signed with the Twins because “I just wanted to win. I thought we’d have a chance to be the underdog. I saw that in the offseason. This is where I grew up.”
Cafardo also points out that the New York Mets, "went out of their way to get Michael Cuddyer, a Hunter protégé (with the Twins) who is making his presence felt in the clubhouse."
Hunter is batting .281, is tied for second on the Twins in home runs and has played in all but five games. Manager Paul Molitor has moved him between designated hitter and right field, where the May defensive upgrades of Aaron Hicks in center and Eddie Rosario in left makes his decreased range less of an issue. Cuddyer is batting .271 for the Mets, who are the surprising leader in the National League East.
Ibanez batted only .188 in 90 plate appearances last season for the Royals, who shocked baseball by going to the World Series. And you can make a very solid argument that the Royals went as far as they did because of a killer bullpen and several emerging stars in their lineup.
In other words, if the Royals' relief pitching came close to resembling what the Twins put on the mound in 2014, a World Series berth would have been a fantasy and Ibanez would have been just another veteran, like Josh Willingham, passing through Kansas City on his way out of baseball.
Or, as Twins third baseman Trevor Plouffe told Cafardo: “That [high-character] guy has to be able to do it on the field, as well. Torii can still do it on the field.”
You can read the rest of Cafardo's piece, including Hunter talking about his relationship with the late Kirby Puckett, here.
And tell us your thoughts about leadership and character in the comments below.