There's an old, albeit broadly applicable saying out there that goes something like "first impressions are the most important impressions." While this axiom may indeed ring true in many of life's passing social situations, it strikes me that it doesn't extend to the baseball realm quite so well. Since the conclusion of the World Series, I've stumbled upon more than a few comments endorsing -- if not outright pushing -- the thought that Tommy Hunter isn't well-suited to pitch in the playoffs, and that the Rangers should be looking to cash in on his traditionalist-impressing 2010 campaign (13-4, 3.73 ERA) by "selling high" right now while the selling is possibly still good.
Hunter's a good example of a young player who built up substantial political capital in his first successful swim through the league in 2009, and then watched that built-up capital dwindle as the more saber-savvy observers began to take notice of the widening chasm between his actual runs allowed and underlying peripherals. The calendar flipped from August to September, and the concern manifested in the form of progressively tougher-to-watch starts. Then October rolled around, and Hunter failed to last longer than four innings in any of his three playoff starts. First impressions may be powerful, but it's this enduring memory of Hunter being swatted around fand chased early from the most important games in franchise history that now holds the greatest amount of sway over public sentiment.
What may be less readily graspable is the fact that Hunter still constitutes an asset for Texas even if he continues pitching in the 4.90-5.00 FIP performance range, which was where he finished last regular season when everything was said and done, and which is roughly equatable to being a standard No. 5-level pitcher. Sure, you remain on the lookout for something better if the opportunity presents itself, but having an above-replacement innings-eater available to plug into the back end of your rotation -- one who's set to continue banking the league minimum through 2012 -- is actually closer to a solution than an urgent problem demanding immediate correction. I think some people have a tendency to forget just how valuable that pre-arbitration designation really is.
And the simple notion of trading Hunter presents a whole new set of questions, including this pointed little gem: To what end would you actually be trading him? "Selling high" on the basis of his sparkling regular-season ERA and win-loss record presupposes that there's a team prone to significantly overvaluing Hunter on the basis of those same numbers, and I just don't see this as a great bet; certainly, there are some front offices that are further away crossing from the sabermetric finish line than others (Houston in particular springs to mind), but this is the age of advanced statistical analysis and all interested parties would rightly utilize that information to ensure that any offers submitted did remain in the general vicinity of "fair" trade value for Hunter. To put it another way, I don't buy the premise that you'd be able to procure a materially greater trade haul than what you'd expect to receive in a perfectly efficient market.
No "haul" would be anything great and wondrous, either. Hunter doesn't recoup any blue-chip prospects in a standalone deal, and given the Rangers' current position in their multi-year plan and present needs, you likely wouldn't want to see him dealt for prospects anyway. In a pure starter-for-starter exchange (which also makes little sense), he fetches a marginally higher-upside but higher-risk arm. Blech. It may be that you can package him with other assets in a larger-scale deal for a superior starting pitcher, and this is probably the only scenario where dealing him can work, because dealing him instead for positional help leaves the Rangers' starting pitching depth going into spring training unsettlingly thin -- and that caveat still applies even if they manage to re-sign Cliff Lee.
As a pitcher whose margin for error is still very thin on the whole, Hunter is going to elicit words of both praise and frustration in 2011. That's an inevitability. There's a pretty decent chance that I'll write an aggravated post about his strikeout rates again at some point next year, and that his actual run-prevention numbers will far more closely correspond with the underlying peripherals, and that some people will be shocked and dismayed when the ERA inflation takes place. Hell, a certain local columnist might crack another unfounded joke about Hunter eating himself out of baseball. The only thing I can hope is that people remember this post and the overarching big picture when that all goes down.