Mar 11, 2012; Lakeland, FL, USA; Detroit Tigers right fielder Torii Hunter (48) is greeted by third base coach Tom Brookens (61) as he comes off the field during the game against the New York Mets at Joker Marchant Stadium. The Mets beat the Tigers 11-0. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

What Will Torii Hunter Bring to the Tigers?

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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.

 

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