When Hunter left the Twins in 2007, his ninth season as a regular there, he was targeted by Ken Williams and the White Sox, who felt he was the perfect guy to revitalize a team that had lost its oomph since winning a championship two years earlier.
Hunter thought long and hard about coming to Chicago, but the Angels kept raising their offers and he signed a five-year, $90-million deal to join a team that had won 94 games the year before. He would make them better, winning a Gold Glove and helping Mike Scioscia's team win 100 games in '08.
That's what Hunter does. He combines his talent with his experience and boyish enthusiasm to make everyone around him feel better and frequently, play better.
Hunter's teams have gone to the postseason eight times in the last 13 seasons, including four Octobers in Minnesota and two each with the Angels and Tigers. Yet somehow we got sidetracked and didn't realize the significance of his returning to the Twins last winter.
When Hunter signed a one-year deal to return to be reunited with Terry Ryan in Minnesota, it was treated as a nice little story -- a decorated warrior returning home to play out his last days. He would serve as both a lure to draw fans to Target Field and as a role model to help in the development of young players, with the benefits to come at some undetermined point down the road.
What we should have said was don't count out a magical season from Hunter and the Twins. We should have said they're capable of doing a lot more than just getting out of the basement, not that we realized that when the season began.
Paul Molitor's team stumbled out of the gate, going 1-6 against the Tigers, White Sox and Royals to start the season and finishing April 10-12. But talk about turning the page in May.
With the starting rotation much improved (even though Ervin Santana remains sidelined for another month by his PED suspension) and the 39-year-old Hunter hitting .337 with six homers, 23 RBIs and a .965 OPS, the Twins went 20-7 in May.
The last time they won that many games in a month, Kirby Puckett was still the center fielder. The year was 1991, and they would win the World Series for the second time in five seasons. It's time to start taking these Twins seriously, if still too early to check on October hotels.
Here are some of the other things we learned in May:
2. Bryce Harper is capable of casting a shadow over every other player in the Major Leagues, Mike Trout included.
After an outstanding April, the Nationals' 22-year-old right fielder stepped on the gas. He made us forget that Washington had been a disappointment in April, getting so many home runs and big hits -- including a three-homer game against the Marlins and a pair of homers in an electrifying series at Wrigley Field, when he and old friend Kris Bryant were dueling against each other for the first time -- that he seemed capable of single-handedly fixing the game's offensive shortage.
How good was Harper? He was good enough that one of the few comparisons was what Barry Bonds did back in 2001, when he hit 73 home runs in a performance that was the exclamation point on baseball's steroid scandal.
During May, Harper put together a .369 batting average, 13 home runs and 28 RBIs in 84 at-bats. He had a .495 on-base percentage and a .905 slugging percentage. His 1.400 OPS was better than Bonds' for the 2001 season -- and even if he only did it for a month, not a season, don't overlook that Bonds was at the absolute top of his chemically enhanced career and that Harper is only 22.
When Bonds was 22, he hit .261 with 25 home runs and an .821 OPS. He didn't have a monthly OPS above .981.
Harper has compiled 1,472 Major League at-bats without ever facing a pitcher younger than him, although that time is finally approaching. The Blue Jays are visiting Washington, and their bullpen includes 20-year-old right-hander Roberto Osuna. They go to Yankee Stadium next week, and lefty Jacob Lindgren, born almost five months after Harper, seems like a guy who could be used against Harper.
3. The Giants seem to think this is 2016, already.
This being an odd-numbered year, it seemed almost predictable that Bruce Bochy's team would spend most of April in last place in the NL West. But with a 22-8 record in a busy May -- they had only two days off and played a doubleheader in Colorado -- they're playing as well as they did at any time in the regular season last season.
While dispatching Pablo Sandaval's successor, Casey McGehee, the Giants averaged 4.9 runs in May, leading the National League. Brandon Crawford, Buster Posey and Brandon Belt all had delivered an OPS of .900-plus for the month, buying time for Hunter Pence to get back into the swing of things after being activated from the DL on May 16.
Ryan Vogelsong (4-0, 1.14 in five May starts), Madison Bumgarner and Tim Lincecum lead a rotation that continues to miss Matt Cain and Jake Peavy. And, as always, the bullpen has been excellent (consider Santiago Casilla's failures on Sunday an exception that proves the rule).
The Giants climbed into first place last Friday but were bounced out on Saturday. Don't be surprised if they hang around the top of the division all season.
4. The Cubs are baseball's most fascinating collection of moving parts.
Joe Maddon actually played a set lineup throughout a 14-14 May that included a four-game sweep of the Mets in a series when they faced Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey and Jonathan Niese. But as the month was ending with the Cubs treading watch in a stretch in which they'll play 11 of 14 games against the Nationals, Royals and Tigers, it was clear that they could look different -- and maybe get even younger -- as the season goes along.
Rookies Jorge Soler, Addison Russell and Bryant are playing big roles but more young talent is coming along fast in the Minors. Senior Vice President Jason McLeod said it's possible 2014 first-round pick Kyle Schwarber -- a left-handed-hitting version of Bryant, with a tick less power -- could arrive this season and shortstop Javier Baez is starting to tear up Triple-A as he and the versatile Arismendy Alcantara try to regain the roster spots they held the last two months of last season.
It's unclear how Schwarber, a catcher who can play outfield, and Baez would fit, or whether Maddon would move Russell from second base to short at mid-season. But you can't watch the Cubs without wondering how long Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon will stick with Starlin Castro as their shortstop. He wants desperately to be a long-term piece but regressed in May after a promising April and has already made 11 errors.
Both Maddon and Epstein put a high value on being strong defensively.
"Everybody always gets fascinated with hitting the baseball,'' Maddon said Friday with the Royals in town. "I love it but if you catch it and you prevent runs, I believe offense can feed off defense. To a certain degree I believe that's what happens with them. … On a nightly basis, the part that should be more solid and consistent is defense. … When you have a solid pitching staff with a good bullpen, that should show up most of the time percentage wise. Those are the two constants you can rely every night -- that you're going to pitch it and catch it.''
Don't forget that Epstein traded away Nomar Garciaparra in 2004 because he felt the Red Sox wouldn't make the postseason without an improved defense. This bears watching.
5. For different reasons, the competition will be fierce in the AL West and East this summer.
No team's been more fun to watch than the young Astros, who quickly found their stride under manager A.J. Hinch. They broke to an 18-7 start and led the West by seven games on May 3. But Prince Fielder started raking, the Rangers traded for Josh Hamilton, the Angels started getting great pitching from their rotation and the Mariners picked up the pace.
Any of those four teams could win that division (and even as poorly as they've played, history says it's risky to write off the A's on June 1, under any circumstances). As for the East, your guess is probably as good as ours.