The Tigers will be staring at an outfielder logjam the day Andy Dirks is reinstated, which should be sometime in mid July. That means someone will have to go from the current roster.
If the Tigers did a quick inventory of what is selling and what isn’t they would part with either Don Kelly or Torii Hunter. By WAR, Kelly is the second least valuable member of the Tigers’ position players. Hunter is the least, by a considerable margin. His -1.1 WAR trails Kelly by almost a full point.
What’s dragging Hunter down to unprecedented depths, at least for him, is his defense. As written on this site numerous times, Hunter’s play in right field has been declining faster than the availability of public pay phones. He should not be an everyday outfielder anymore. It’s that simple.
On offense, Hunter’s skills have eroded as well, primarily because of a trend that began last year. His patience at the plate (as measured by BB%) has sunk so rapidly that among all major league hitters with at least 150 plate appearances Hunter ranks 278 out of 284. His OBP of .284 puts him 242 among all major leaguers with regular playing time. But Hunter can still hit the mistake pitch. His 10 homers ties him with J.D. Martinez for fourth on the team and his ISO (isolated power) is sixth. You don’t want to pull the plug on a main source of your team’s power.
Austin Jackson, by the numbers, is having a worse offensive season than Hunter, although only negligibly. Jackson provides less power but more OBP consistency. Plus, his defense, although subpar this season, is better than Hunter’s. Jackson’s roster spot is safe. So, for now, is J.D. Martinez, who continues to roll.
Thus, the decision will come down to Kelly or Hunter, and I suspect Kelly will be the odd man out. His versatility on defense is valuable but probably not enough to outweigh his weaknesses as a hitter (Kelly’s wOBA is worse than both Hunter and Jackson).
The best scenario for when Dirks returns would be to rotate all five outfielders. Essentially, the Tigers have five outfielders with fourth outfielder skills. That’s not as grim as it seems. If you deploy your outfielders properly, you should be able to cobble together decent outfield production. Proper usage would mean that most starts go to Dirks, Rajai Davis, Jackson, and Martinez. That leaves Hunter as a spot starter, occasional DH, and late inning pinch hitter. His twilight-career approach at the plate is actually well suited to the demands of pinch-hitting, when contact, something that hasn’t slipped significantly for Hunter, is often valued over OBP skills.
The wildcard is whether Hunter would accept such a role. He is a popular figure among his teammates and reducing his playing time could cause disruptions in the clubhouse. Then again it may not matter. Jim Leyland never believed in the holy merits of clubhouse chemistry. He believed in talent and production. And right now, Hunter’s talent and production suggests his best role would be as a part time player and bat off the bench.