Saturday, December 15, 2007

First Big Signing in the Reagins Era...Torii Hunter?

New GM Tony Reagins made a splash by signing 32 year-old center fielder Torii Hunter to a stunning 5-year, $90 million deal. Hunter is coming off a fine season which saw him hit .287 with 28 HR and 107 RBIs, while playing his typical highlight reel defense.

Now that that's out of the way, let's get real.

Torii Hunter is a fine ballplayer, a fine player who's team wasn't willing to offer him anything more than a 3-year, $45 million contract. Other teams were willing to go 5 years, and those were usually teams that had a tangible need for a center fielder.

The Angels, before that historic Thanksgiving Day signing, had one overpaid, aging center fielder in 33 year-old Gary Matthews Jr. They had another center fielder, this one an under-appreciated, inexpensive on-base machine in 26-year old Reggie Willits. An on-base machine (.391 in 07') that is blessed with that blazing speed that the Angels crave and that also allows a center fielder to cover all kinds of ground and enjoy quality range.

So, in an off-season where the Angels desperately needed to address a gaping hole at 3rd base, preferably helping them with their league average OBP and below average slugging, they signed yet another aging center fielder.

They actually got themselves a center fielder with league average OBP and good but not great power. At least Hunter has a track record of performance, and a rather consistent one at that. Torii Hunter has, for his past 5 full seasons, hit between 23 and 31 HR with between 81 and 107 RBIs.

Those are nice numbers, but the reality is they are closer to the side of empty numbers as compared to solid numbers. What does that mean? I'll explain.

Let's take Hunter's 2007 campaign, and compare it to Travis Hafner's 2004 campaign. Hunter hit .287 with 28 HR and 107 RBIs. Hafner hit .311 with 28 HR and 109 RBIs. Comparable solid seasons right? Well, not so much.

Hunter's .334 OBP, coupled with his .505 slugging, leads to a runs created estimate of 5.5 runs per game, or 891 runs in a season, given 9 Torii Hunter's in a lineup. That's a great statistic, and obviously Hunter adds value to any lineup.

Hafner's .410 OBP, coupled with his .583 slugging, leads to a runs created estimate of 9.1 runs per game, or 1,474 runs per game, given 9 Travis Hafner's in a lineup. That's all-world production.

All told, even with nearly identical HR and RBI totals, Torii Hunter (in 2007) contributed about 60% of Travis Hafner's (2004) offensive value.

Is Torii Hunter worth $18 million per season, given that he has about 60% of the offensive value of a truly elite player? Some will point to his defense, and I will point to his 2007 Zone Rating which paints him as the 6th best center fielder in the American League. I know that statistic is not all encompassing, but it points to the fact that he is not catching everything as some would think.

He's 32, and I can't blame Hunter for being a step slower than before. I think he's a pretty poor bet to be more than an average center fielder by the 3rd year of this contract. He and Gary Matthews both in fact may be below average defenders by the end of their lengthy contracts.

In case you were wondering, 9 Reggie Willits' would create 5.3 runs/game, or 858 runs in a season. Once, again, this is a simplistic look at offense, but it's hard to argue against the fact that Reggie Willits would give the Angels about 96% of Torii Hunter's offensive value, for about 2% of the salary ($382,500 versus Hunter's annual average of $18,000,000).

Overall, Reagins set out to get a big time bat, and Torii Hunter is simply not it. Hunter is a nice player, he'd be a great player to have for the right price, but the Angels have blown out their budget for a good bat. He's nothing more than that. He's also nothing more than a good glove. Is that what $18 million a year gets you these days?

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