MINNEAPOLIS -- Trade speculation that shadowed Torii Hunter last season has subsided for now, and the Minnesota Twins again have their five-time Gold Glove winner slated for center field and a spot in the middle of the lineup.
But Hunter knows this could be the start of his final year with Minnesota.
"It's hard, because you never know," the 30-year-old said Tuesday from his home near Dallas. "I think I'm going to be here. But what if we're not winning? The deadline is July 31st. Right now, it's out of the wind, and nobody is talking or whispering about me, hopefully. But you never know. I'd like to stay."
Money is the only reason his name ever came up on the trading block in the first place. Hunter is scheduled to make $10.75 million this season, the final guaranteed installment of a four-year contract he signed before the 2003 season. The Twins have an option to keep him for $12 million in 2007, or they can buy out Hunter's deal for $2 million -- thus granting him free agency.
If plans to build a new stadium are still stuck in the political process and owner Carl Pohlad continues to limit what general manager Terry Ryan can spend, the team will face a very difficult decision on the player who has become one of the most popular athletes in town. Not to mention a clubhouse leader, defensive standout, good base-stealer and power hitter in a lineup that's always short on home runs.
Hunter is the only regular position player left from the spunky 2002 squad that survived baseball's attempt to fold the franchise and wound up in the AL Championship Series. The Twins won two more division titles until slipping back toward mediocrity in 2005, when Hunter broke his ankle trying to make a jumping catch at the wall in a late July game and missed the rest of the year while his teammates struggled to hit.
Never shy about voicing his view, Hunter was one of several players who publicly called for an offseason upgrade to the roster -- specifically for offense.
Constrained by his budget, Ryan traded for second baseman Luis Castillo and signed designated hitter Rondell White and third baseman Tony Batista, who had been playing in Japan. There are six All-Star Game appearances among them, and plenty of major league success, but their ages and injury history kept most fans from getting too excited about the additions. Especially after the rival Chicago White Sox re-signed several key members of their defending World Series champion team to multiyear deals and trading for slugger Jim Thome and pitcher Javier Vazquez.
As for Hunter?
"I think that we can compete," he said. "I don't know if we're going to win the whole thing, but I think we can make a lot of teams gulp.
"It's very frustrating, because everybody knows it's not Terry Ryan's fault. Terry Ryan is doing a great job for the budget that he has."
In an interview earlier this month, Ryan said he doesn't mind hearing what's on Hunter's mind.
"You can't muzzle a player. I don't want to muzzle a player," he said. "Sometimes it's going to be good, and sometimes it's going to be what you don't want to hear, but that's the nature of it -- and that's fine. I don't have any problem with players speaking their peace."
Looking forward, Hunter isn't worried about his ankle. For the past six weeks, he's been working out and preparing for spring training.
"I'm runnin', jumpin', cuttin', swingin'," he said. "I'm doing everything right now."
First, there is a relationship with teammate Justin Morneau to mend. Hunter, frustrated he couldn't contribute down the stretch and upset with Morneau's attitude and comments Morneau directed at him, got into a fight with the first baseman near the end of the season. The two haven't spoken since, but Hunter said he plans to make peace before spring training.
"I've been praying about it," he said. "I'm going to be the bigger man and call him."
Hunter acknowledged Tuesday that he would restructure his contract if it gave the Twins more payroll maneuverability. But he's aware that his time with Minnesota might be running out.
"You try not to think about that," he said, "but I'm human."