If Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski could have created a player to fill the Tigers offseason needs, I’m not sure that he could have done much better than Torii Hunter. The former Angel inked a two-year/26 million dollar deal today. He’ll start in right field on Opening Day and bat second or sixth depending on how Jim Leyland is feeling that particular day.
Hunter batted second 85 times for the Angels in 2012 and put up the best batting average (.313) of his career. He’s a right-handed hitter, which should help against left-handers (The Tigers famously struggled against lefties in 2012. Barry Zito? Madison Bumgarner? Bruce Chen?) By all accounts, he’s a wonderful guy in the clubhouse. That’s a nice bonus, although I never got the sense that clubhouse atmosphere was an issue for the Tigers on the way to the World Series. This is less about chemistry off the field and more about chemistry on it.
There are a couple of red flags, as there are with any player. Hunter is 37 and is a career .277 hitter. Was his .313 average in 2012 the stirrings of a late-career run or a veteran player who knows how to turn it on in his contract year? He also struck out 133 times last year, which was a career high. That’s not the best case scenario for a #2 hitter, but it’s still a mild improvement over the combined 147 K’s that the number two hitters provided for the Tigers in 2012.
But the bottom line is this – the Tigers struggled in 2012 and disappeared in the World Series largely because their corner outfielders didn’t do enough. Brennan Boesch had a horrible year. Quintin Berry was a nice sparkplug, but clearly is nothing more than a spot-starter and a pinch runner. Andy Dirks can hit and field at the big league level. But he’s not a star, and he didn’t possess enough power to compensate for Boesch, Berry and Avisail Garcia. Hunter is a clear upgrade over all four of those players. And when you combine him with the return of Victor Martinez, the Tigers should (stress ‘should’) be very good from one through six in the batting order. And Alex Avila, Jhonny Peralta and Omar Infante don’t exactly make a poor bottom three either.
Full credit goes to Dombrowski and Tigers owner Mike Ilitch as well.
It would be very easy for the Tigers brass to look at their situation and stand pat. They’ll have to pay out millions in arbitration to players like Austin Jackson, Max Scherzer, Avila and Doug Fister. They do have Martinez returning at DH, which would have already improved the offense. They drew three million fans and had a deep playoff run which means millions more in terms of tickets, merchandise and other revenue. They’ve already given out superstar level contracts to Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander. They do need to find a closer although Dombrowski indicated they would give minor league prospect Bruce Rondon a long look. They also have Garcia and the Nick Castellanos waiting in the wings, players who might be good enough to make an impact this season.
But this is not about waiting. This is about winning. It’s fitting that the Hunter signing happened less than 24 hours after Marlins’ owner Jeffrey Loria submarined his fan base and sold off all of his big contracts. He got his new taxpayer funded stadium last year. He doesn’t need to win. He just wants money. Ilitch has money (although he can always make more). But he wants to win more. And the Hunter signing is a shrewd, quick move to let him do just that.
Ilitch may not be the best owner in baseball, but he’s clearly the most desperate. And sometimes desperation is the most important factor in sports. The Tigers have it. And now they have another bat to add to an already impressive group. This guarantees nothing. But it sure makes a return trip to the World Series a lot more likely.