Tuesday, November 24, 2009

All-Time Twins Team: First Base

For the Twins All-Time Team, we select Kent Hrbek as our first baseman. This is the first of our controversial picks.

Hrbek was a "hometown boy done good" for the Twins over his career. Born and raised in the shadows of Met Stadium, Hrbek starred at Bloomington Kennedy High School before being drafted by the Twins in the 17th round of the 1978 Draft. After just three minor league seasons, advancing only as high as High Class-A ball, the Twins recalled Hrbek in late August of 1981, and he hit a home run in his first at-bat at Yankee Stadium to win a game for the Twins. It would be the only homer he would hit in 1981, but it gave Twins' fans a glimpse of what could be expected in 1982.

With the Twins moving indoors for the 1982 season, Hrbek was the star of a young squad which lost an MLB-worst 102 games, but featured many of the young players who would be cornerstones of the team's 1987 World Series title. Hrbek batted .301/.363/.485 in his rookie season and added 23 HR and 92 RBI. Not bad for a 22-year-old kid who never played AA or AAA ball. He finished second to Cal Ripken, Jr. in the AL Rookie of the Year race and made his lone All-Star appearance that season (more on that later).

Hrbek would go on to play all 14 of his Major League seasons with the Twins. He was remarkably consistent throughout, hitting at least 20 homers in 10 of those seasons in an era when 20 homers meant something. Injuries played a part in the relative shortness of his career, but he still went on to bat .282/.367/.481 in 7,137 plate appearances. He added 293 homers and 1,086 RBI for his career. Of course, he was at first base when the Twins won World Series titles in 1987 and 1991, cementing his legacy as a Twin.

His defense was very much underrated. His career fielding percentage was .994, and the league average over that span was .992. Of course, this only measures chances and errors and does not measure range. Using more modern measures, Hrbek's defense was even more spectacular. His range factor over 9 defensive innings, measuring putouts and assists per game, was 9.73 for his career; the league average over his career span was 8.20. For a large man, he was very nimble and effective at first base.

Hrbek suffered throughout his career from a "what-if" complex. Critics noted that he didn't take good enough care of his body throughout his career. He played in a different era in which fitness programs were not as carefully monitored as the current era, so some of that criticism is muted. He also played the same position as Don Mattingly, who won all the Gold Gloves and made all the All-Star Games instead of Hrbek. To Hrbek's credit, he called the All-Star Game what it was - a joke, and cemented his sideline status. Of course, he said he wouldn't go, preferring three days off instead. Hrbek played the game with a youngster's enthusiasm and did not take the game, or himself, too seriously. He was a perfect leader of a frat-like clubhouse atmosphere in the 1980s on some good teams.

Justin Morneau will likely overtake this position soon, but Hrbek holds it for now.

Also considered: Justin Morneau

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