Torii Hunter has been a productive hitter for the Detroit Tigers over the past two seasons, and has become a popular player and a leader in the clubhouse. When the World Series is over later this month, Hunter will be a free agent, and his future is uncertain. He could decide to retire, but has said that if the Tigers were interested in having him back, he would like to work something out.
Hunter has just completed a two year contract that paid him $26 million. He has continued to be productive at the plate, but is not very good defensively in the outfield anymore. In fact, he was the second worst outfielder in the American league, according to both Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and defensive runs saved (DRS). Both measures show that Hunter was 18 runs below the league average, essentially costing the team 18 runs defensively.
At the plate, Hunter had another fine season in 2014. He ranked 28th in the American league in weighted on base average (wOBA) among qualified players. With 15 teams in the league, that would make Hunter the second or third best hitter on an average team.
Hunter was the fourth-most productive Tigers’ hitter, batting .283 with 17 home runs, 83 RBI and 71 runs scored. He filled a vacancy in the second spot in the batting order, hitting behind Ian Kinsler and ahead of Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. If he is not brought back for the 2015 season, his offensive production will not be replaced by anyone currently in the Tigers’ organization. Still, his defense drags his value down to the point where he accumulated a WAR of just 0.3 wins above replacement level.
The problems for the Tigers bringing Hunter back are twofold. First, they had one of the worst defensive teams in the league in 2014, and replacing him would give them their best chance to upgrade their defense. Second, their payroll will be increasing above its 2014 level, edging toward the luxury tax threshold, even if expensive free agents such Max Scherzer depart for greener pastures.
The ideal position for Hunter would be as the designated hitter, where Victor Martinez is also a free agent. Martinez is coming off a tremendous season, providing much more value than Hunter. The Tigers’ priority is to bring Martinez back. If that can’t be done, then Torii could be the ideal replacement for him as the designated hitter, as long as their manager has the good sense to use him accordingly.
One advantage that Hunter gives the club is that he would very likely settle for a one year contract, as he will be 40 years of age next July. Martinez, who will be 36, will want a three or four year contract, and he also figures to earn a larger salary than Hunter will command. If the team were to replace Martinez with Hunter, they could theoretically spend the savings to shore up the outfield by acquiring a speedy center fielder. They could also net themselves a first round draft pick if they lose Martinez through free agency.
The reality is, though, that the Tigers need Victor Martinez to bat in the clean up spot behind Miguel Cabrera. While Hunter had a decent season, he would be a big downgrade by comparison with Martinez.
Could the Tigers bring Hunter back to play another position, or a part time role? That’s not likely. The club might be able to convince Hunter to accept a reduced role and a reduced salary, but that seems to go against the competitive spirit that we’ve seen in Torii Hunter. There is just no hiding Hunter’s age in the field.
If the Tigers don't sign Martinez, the chances of Hunter returning, primarily as a DH, increase dramatically. The strong likelihood is that the Tigers will sign Victor Martinez to a multi year contract, and Torii Hunter will not be back with the team. If that is the case, they will miss his presence in the lineup and in the clubhouse.