Wednesday, December 2, 2009

All-Time Twins Team: Outfield

The Minnesota Twins have been blessed with some fine outfielders over their 50 seasons, none of which were better than Kirby Puckett. In our all-time team, Kirby is stationed where all Twins' fans remember him - center field. Flanking him are two other tremendous talents, batting whiz Tony Oliva and Kirby's protege Torii Hunter.

Puckett was drafted by the Twins in the first round of the winter draft in 1982 and promptly tore up Appalachian League pitching for Elizabethton (.382/.438/.491 in 305 plate appearances). He was promoted to Visalia in 1983 and hit .314, and then started the 1984 season with the Twins' AAA affiliate in Toledo. After 2 1/2 seasons and 903 at bats, Puckett was promoted to the big leagues for good in May of 1984, and promptly picked up four hits in his first game. He hit .296/.320/.336 as a rookie in '84 and .288/.330/.385 in 1985. In 1986, Puckett developed a power stroke (31 homers after hitting a grand total of four during his previous two seasons) which would make him one of the game's best pure hitters of his era.

Puckett hit .328/.366/.537 in 1986 with 31 homers and 96 RBI. He made his first of ten consecutive All-Star Game appearances, the first of his six Silver Sluggers, and also won the first of his six Gold Gloves. His 1987 season was even better (.332/.367/.534 with 28 HR and 99 RBI) as the Twins won their first World Series title. Puckett also led the league in hits that season, which was the first of four (three consecutive) hit-leading seasons for his career. He added a batting title in 1989 and strapped the Twins on his back in the 1991 World Series.

A Dennis Martinez pitch up and in ended his 1995 season prematurely in September, and he awoke one morning in Spring Training 1996 with clouded vision. Glaucoma was diagnosed, and Puckett's career was over at age 35. He retired with 2,304 hits in 12 seasons, a career .318/.360/.477 batting line, a batting title, four AL hits crowns, six Gold Gloves, ten All-Star appearances, and six Silver Sluggers. He was a first-ballot Hall of Fame inductee in 2001 and died of a massive stroke in 2006. However, his contributions to the Twins over his relatively short MLB career - spent entirely with the Twins - are immeasurable.

Oliva was perhaps the best all-around hitter ever to don a Twins' uniform. Signed by the Twins as a free agent in 1961, he debuted in Minnesota just over a year later, but did not stick in the big leagues until 1964. In his rookie season, he batted .323/.359/.557 with 43 doubles, 9 triples, 32 HR, and 94 RBI in one of the most explosive rookie seasons in baseball history. He won a batting title in his rookie season, and also led the AL in hits (217), runs (109), and doubles (43). He made it two batting titles in each of his first two seasons in 1965 - the first player to accomplish this feat. Oliva hit .321/.378/.491 in 1965 with 40 doubles, 16 HR, and 98 RBI, and finished second to teammate Zoilo Versailles for AL MVP honors.

By 1971, Oliva was firmly established as one of the game's best hitters. He had batted .300 or better six of his first eight seasons, had led the league in hitting three times, and led the American League in hits five seasons. He had also notched five seasons of 20 homers or better. A knee injury cost him most of 1972, and set into motion a downward spiral of knee problems which led to his career ending in 1976. Still, the numbers are there to place him on the Twins' all-time team. Although he did not play long enough to collect enough hits to warrant Hall of Fame induction, Oliva's career .304/.353/.476 line with 329 doubles, 220 HR, and 947 RBI in 1,676 career games, eight All-Star appearances and three batting titles puts him squarely on our all-time team. 

Rounding out the outfield is Hunter. Drafted in the first round of the 1993 MLB draft out of an Arkansas high school, the Twins took the slow approach with Hunter in the minors. The Twins allowed him to develop in the minors for six seasons before giving him a shot in center field in 1999. Hunter's minor league numbers were ok (.270/.332/.417 in eight seasons) but did not provide an indication of how he would be in the Majors. However, his athleticism in center field exuded star power, and many of these catches are etched in Twins' fans' memories.

Hunter was the team's every day CF in 1999 out of spring training and struggled with MLB pitching (.255/.309/.380). He was demoted mid-season in 2000 and returned from the minors that season never to look back (and a much better hitter). His breakout 2001 season provided the blueprint for his success of years to follow, and he hit .261/.306/.479 with 27 HR and 92 RBI. He also won the first of his nine-consecutive (and counting) Gold Gloves that season. He was voted the start the All-Star Game the following season (and provided some highlight reel excitement with his circus catch off the bat of Barry Bonds in the first inning), and finished the season with a 289/.334/.524 batting line with 29 HR and 94 RBI. He was a stalwart of the Twins' three-consecutive AL Central Division titles between 2002-2004, and his injury in Boston in 2005 helped kill the Twins' chances for a fourth-consecutive title. He returned with a vengeance in 2006 (.278/.336/.490, 31 HR and 98 RBI) as the Twins again won the division, and left as a free agent after the 2007 season, in which he notched a career-high 107 RBI.

Hunter's Twins' line through 11 seasons was .271/.324/.469 with 259 doubles, 192 HR, and 711 RBI. He made two All-Star Game appearances, won seven Gold Gloves, and provided some spectacular defense in center field. His career numbers did not warrant the five-year, $90M contract signed with the Angels prior to the 2008 season, but his numbers posted in Twins Territory certainly warrant consideration on this team.

Also Considered: Cesar Tovar, Bob Allison, Larry Hisle, Lyman Bostock, Tom Brunansky, Dan Gladden, Marty Cordova, Jacque Jones, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel

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