Hunter at TwinsFest: ‘Nothing but talent around here’
MINNEAPOLIS — As Torii Hunter met with a small gathering of media members Sunday on his way out of TwinsFest, the future of the organization walked past the 39-year-old veteran.
First came Miguel Sano, Minnesota’s prized third base prospect. At 6-foot-4, 245 pounds, Sano is an imposing presence, even as a 21-year-old.
"Look at this guy, Sano," Hunter said as Sano ambled through a doorway.
Right behind Sano was the Twins’ other uber-prospect, 21-year-old center fielder Byron Buxton. Ranked by many outlets as the best prospect in baseball, Buxton was hampered by injuries last season. As he and Hunter — protege and mentor — shook hands as Buxton walked past, the veteran outfielder continued to compliment the Twins’ young duo.
"Nothing but talent around here," Hunter said.
Hunter, who spent the first 11 years of his major league career with the Twins, saw some of that promise late last season when Minnesota and his old club, Detroit, squared off at Target Field in late August. The first-place Tigers expected to roll over the last-place Twins, but Minnesota had other ideas.
In that series, the Twins won games by scores of 20-6 and 12-4 — which caught the attention of Hunter — before dropping the next two games of the four-game series. Now Hunter’s bat will be added into the lineup that finished seventh in baseball in runs scored in 2014.
"The one reason I’m here is because I saw those guys and the way they played in (August) against the Tigers," Hunter said Sunday. "They scored 20 runs off of us and beat us down. . . . We had a four-game series here and we were thinking, ‘We’re about to sweep the Twins.’ No. They actually put it on us. I definitely think these guys have all the potential in the world."
As soon as Hunter finished that last sentence, Sano and Buxton strolled by. Neither was on last year’s Twins team that put up 20 runs against the Tigers; Sano missed all of 2014 after having Tommy John surgery, and Buxton ascended as high as Double-A before a season-ending concussion. But Hunter sees promise in not only those two but in the rest of Minnesota’s lineup.
While some of Minnesota’s younger talent was on display this weekend at TwinsFest, it was a familiar face — Hunter — who was perhaps the most popular man at Target Field. It was Hunter’s first TwinsFest appearance in more than seven years, as his last season with Minnesota was in 2007.
Back then, the event was held at the now-demolished Metrodome. The 2015 edition took place at Target Field, a stadium Hunter has been to plenty as a visitor. Now he’ll call it home for the 2015 season. Based on the reaction he received this weekend, though, it was almost as if he never left.
"It’s amazing just to see the love," Hunter said. "I just didn’t understand that it was still like this. I went away seven years ago. Just to come back, even before I left, it feels like it’s still the same. I’m thankful it’s that way. The lines of people wanting autographs were long. It’s great. It’s a great feeling."
Hunter will turn 40 years old this season, his 19th in the majors. Though his offensive numbers have held up through the years, his defense isn’t the same as it was during his first stint in Minnesota. Hunter will play right field for the Twins, a position he played just a handful of times during his first 11 seasons with Minnesota.
That doesn’t mean Hunter can’t serve as a mentor to the Twins’ next crop of young center fielders. That includes Buxton, whose arrival in the majors could possibly come during the 2015 season, if all goes well. And Aaron Hicks has also said he plans to learn as much as he can from Hunter in spring training and throughout the season.
"I’ve talked to him a lot over the years, actually," Hicks said of Hunter. "Once I got drafted, a lot of people found out that he was my favorite player. We talked a little bit. . . . I’m going to be all in his ear the whole time. He might get annoyed I’ll be in his ear so much. He’s definitely going to be a guy I’m going to go to."
Hunter is by no means a stranger to serving as a mentor for younger players. During TwinsFest, he had a chance to talk with some of those outfielders who will be picking his brain for advice.
In just a few weeks, the real lessons will begin in Fort Myers, with Hunter as the teacher and Buxton and Hicks as his students.
"I try to reach out to guys and get a chance to know these guys personally," Hunter said. "But you can’t just go to anybody and say, ‘Hey, you do it this way and that way.’ You don’t have a relationship with them, so they won’t listen to you. So you just have to build that relationship up. That’s what spring training is for."
FOX Sports North’s Phil Ervin contributed to this report.
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