Give the Angels credit for recognizing a sunk cost and upgrading a position to which they already had devoted a big chunk of payroll. The question is whether the upgrade is as big as they think.
If Torii Hunter is taking at-bats away from Gary Matthews Jr. and replacing him in center field, then the Angels just added two or three wins for 2008, since Hunter is better than Matthews on offense and defense. Matthews had a ridiculous walk year in 2006 but reverted to fourth-outfielder status in 2007 with a year that, oddly enough, nearly matched his 2005 stats. Give Tony Reagins credit for tacitly acknowledging Matthews' contract was a mistake and improving his team at a position the Angels weren't expected to try to improve.
That aside, Hunter is no bargain at $18 million per season, and he's likely to end up a fourth outfielder himself before the contract is up. Hunter has a great defensive reputation because he makes highlight catches and has a clear skill for robbing opposing hitters of home runs. However, those catches are rare, and his overall defense in center is slightly above average. It's only going to get worse as he gets older, and he'll be 35 by Year 4 of this contract, at which time he might have to move to an outfield corner.
The bigger problem with Hunter and this deal, however, is his bat. Hunter never has topped a .340 OBP, so he'll fit right into the Angels' lineup, but not in a good way. The Angels are one of the least patient teams in baseball, finishing second to last in the American League in pitches seen per plate appearance. Reggie Willits, whose playing time probably is hurt the most by this deal, was the only Angel to draw 60 unintentional walks in 2007, and in fact led the AL in P/PA at 4.44, more than a full pitch above Hunter's 3.37 figure. If Reagins can't foist Matthews' albatross contract on another club, Willits would seem to be headed out of town himself. Hunter does give the Angels another power bat, which they needed in 2007, but at a cost of adding another no-like-breaking-ball hacker to their lineup. At the same time, they possibly deleted one of their few hitters who could get on base and make the opposing pitcher work.
Hunter's an above-average bat for center right now because he has good power (probably a 25-homer bat in Anaheim, with 30-40 doubles) and hits .270-.280 most years. He's already leaving the typical hitter's peak years, however, and his abilities in both departments will decline over the life of the contract. By the contract's third or fourth year, he'll be a .260/.310/.440 hitter, which is a fourth outfielder's line on a contending club, and won't be worth $18 million a year even if player salaries continue increasing.
The Angels also gave up their first-round pick (27th overall) to sign Hunter, which leaves them without a first-rounder for the third time in four drafts. The Angels signed just one player in the top 140 picks in the 2007 draft, and their farm system, long ranked as one of the best in baseball, is slipping, due both to promotions and some disappointments. Unless they are willing to take some high-ticket players who fall due to their bonus demands, the loss of these high picks will continue to hurt them.
For Minnesota, the loss was expected, but it does leave the Twins with an opening in center field (and $12 million to play with, some -- but not all -- of which will pay for raises for other players) and no one in the organization who can fill it. Although trading a star player to fill a need often leads to a lower return than if the player was traded just for value, the Twins might choose to target a center fielder if they put Johan Santana on the block. However, a good, young center fielder who has yet to reach arbitration probably could pry loose Matt Garza right now.
The biggest beneficiary of Hunter's signing might be the Royals, who reportedly were interested in Hunter but had fallen behind the White Sox and Rangers (and, apparently, the Angels) in the past few days. The Royals have no business going after a big-ticket hitter at this point; they have a better player on their roster making less than 20 percent of Hunter's salary in David DeJesus, and they have OBP issues of their own that need to be improved, not exacerbated. The Rangers also lucked out a bit, since they're not contending in 2008 and should be focused on building the best club for 2010, by which time Hunter would be part of the problem, not the solution.