As Spring Training enters into it’s “dog days”, the story lines have crystallized – fifth starter competition, the ubiquitous closer conundrum, and who fills out the end of the bench. Such is the luxury of a championship-caliber club that addressed it’s primary needs in the offseason. One hole that required patching was right field – the failing, flailing tandem of Ryan Raburn and Brennan Boesch sent packing, and 9-time Gold Glove outfielder Torii Hunter brought into the fold.
Most of us remember Hunter tormenting Tigers fans in every manner as a member of the Minnesota Twins; snatching home runs high above the fence, slicing liners into the gaps, smashing drives off the Hefty bag in the Metrodome. After five stellar seasons with the Angels, Hunter hand-picked the Tigers as his free-agency destination last November, reasoning that adding his talents to the cast in place offered him the best chance to culminate his career with a World Series victory.
It is safe to assume that Hunter will be an upgrade over Boesch, Raburn, the speedy-but-flawed Quintin Berry, talented-but-raw Avisail Garcia, or the powerful Nick Castellanos, who is still learning how to play outfield. But in two short weeks, the games aren’t played on paper or in blogs – they are played between the white lines and every one counts. The near-implosion of the 2012 season is fresh in the minds of fans, so we are all looking for more assurance than assumption.
The 37-year old Hunter is coming off one of his better seasons, compiling a .313 BA, 16 HR’s, 92 RBI and 9 stolen bases. Slotted 2nd behind phenom Mike Trout, his 132 OPS+ was the highest of his career. The 16 HR was the fewest he’s hit since an injury-shortened 2005 campaign, so there is potential for bounceback to the 25-range his career numbers suggest. The move to RF also has agreed with Hunter, as he was 2nd in the league with 14 assists while making just 4 errors.
The naysayers point to an unsustainable .389 BAbip, 133 K’s and 15 GIDP and fear Hunter will resemble an older, cheerier Delmon Young with a better glove. That a cushy lineup spot between Trout and Albert Pujols resulted in a steady diet of fastballs and the career-high .313 BA followed, and also that the power downturn is an ordinary byproduct of advancing age. Certainly a loss of a step in the outfield will naturally follow and negate the advantage Torii provides defensively.
An outlier season at age 36 should prompt some concern; the situation he enters, however, should not. While Austin Jackson may not present the 40+ stolen base threat that Mike Trout does, he will be on base almost as often, and I have to give a slight nod to Miguel Cabrera as protection behind Hunter. The high BAbip and “luck” factor may presage a regression to the mean, and he may strike out a little more than we care to see. A quick peek at Hunter’s postseason line should make one feel a bit better – .305, with 4 HR, 18 RBI and a .370 OBP in 34 games.
Taking Torii’s 162-game average and scaling it to 140 games would look like this: .277 BA, 22 HR, 83 RBI, 30 2B, 13 SB. Throw in above-average defense, and he is a 2-3 WAR player. Considering the hot mess that occupied RF in 2012 delivered in the neighborhood of a -3, an average Torii Hunter represents at least a 4-game swing over last year. Those results should keep him, the skipper, and all of us fans smiling right into the World Series.