The Tigers have gotten very good at several things, and excellent at this: Ratcheting expectations.
Reaching the World Series was nice, but obviously not enough. So here they went again Wednesday, forking over a two-year, $26 million contract for a veteran star who might not be in Detroit very long, just long enough. Right fielder Torii Hunter's arrival doesn't guarantee Mike Ilitch his long-sought championship, not at all. But it reaffirms the Tigers aren't stopping until they get it.
They were a World Series favorite before the move, and if they somehow find a way to keep free-agent pitcher Anibal Sanchez (no easy task), some probably will expect them to clinch the division by the All-Star break. We should be immune to irrational hyperbole by now, but the fact is, Hunter should be a great fit. He fills three needs almost immediately: A corner outfielder who plays terrific defense, bats right-handed and can hit second in Jim Leyland's lineup.
The Tigers are paying a lot of money for a 37-year-old, and that gives me some pause. But the benefits are too large to ignore, and I don't think it precludes them from adding anyone else. Dave Dombrowski didn't commit beyond two years, didn't surrender anything other than another hefty Ilitch paycheck, and landed Hunter before A.L. rival Texas could make its move on him.
Hunter is considered a charismatic personality, and on a low-key team, that can't hurt. He changed his Twitter profile Wednesday to reflect the task ahead: "Found a job! Headed to Motown to win that ring!"
For the Tigers, it's still ring-or-painful-sting. Considering the way their inconsistent offense collapsed in the World Series, there's no debating the importance of the signing. The only debate is the size of the impact. Hunter should be a considerable upgrade to the outfield candidate group of Brennan Boesch, Andy Dirks and Quintin Berry. Delmon Young is long gone, and Hunter is a much better all-around player.
But he'll also be 38 next July, and is coming off an outstanding season with the Angels that will be hard to duplicate. Some of his statistics -- .313 average, 16 home runs, 92 RBIs -- were significantly better than the rest of his career, although his power numbers were down. He's a .277 career hitter who does strike out a lot. It certainly helped that he hit between Mike Trout and Albert Pujols in the Angels lineup, and he's not exactly taking a step back now, nestled between Austin Jackson and Miguel Cabrera.
It's only money
On paper -- which is where the offseason game is always played, of course -- the Tigers' top half of the batting order looks tremendous: Jackson, Hunter, Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez. The Tigers have made deals like this before, signing aging stars Gary Sheffield and Johnny Damon, and they didn't work. But the risk here is merely a financial one, and if Ilitch wants to hammer his win-now mantra, more power to him.
The Tigers invested heavily in Hunter, but they didn't tie their future to him. Instead, they're investing again in the present, while buying time for young outfield candidates Avisail Garcia and Nick Castellanos.
Along with the return of Martinez, the Tigers won't be lacking experienced pros. Ilitch, 83, rapidly accelerated the timetable last offseason with his $214-million signing of Fielder. That pushed the Tigers one step closer to the prize, from the ALCS to the World Series.
Hunter isn't Fielder but he's a heckuva fielder, a nine-time Gold Glove winner, a lineup-enhancer and a much-needed piece to the Tigers' much-discussed puzzle. Once again, Ilitch and the Tigers sign one up and crank it up. The Lions and Pistons may be faltering and the Red Wings may be idling, but one thing you can count on around here is the glow from baseball's hot stove, and the Tigers' unrelenting willingness to stir it up.