Henning: Tigers would be wise to re-sign Torii Hunter
Detroit -- Two years ago, the Angels surprised a few people, none more than Tigers executives parked in Comerica Park's offices. Detroit's captains assumed the Angels would make a $12-million qualifying offer to Torii Hunter, an outfielder who was 37 years old going on 27.
The Angels backed away from committing a big single-season payday to a free agent heading toward sundown. In the time it takes to make a phone call and iron out a couple of money issues that weren't going to be issues, the Tigers and Hunter agreed he would spend his 2013 and 2014 seasons in Detroit.
Now, you wonder, seriously, if Hunter and the Tigers might unite again in 2015. The Tigers need a right fielder who can mind the store until Steven Moya or Tyler Collins, or some such answer, can begin work regularly in Detroit.
Hunter is now 39 and his hitting numbers look like a lot of Hunter's 18 big league seasons: .288 batting average, 17 home runs, 82 RBIs, .774 OPS.
He had a double Thursday in the Tigers' 4-2 knockoff of the Twins and he wants to play in Detroit for at least another year. Repeat: He wants to play here. These aren't feel-good words designed to leave town on good terms. Hunter is beyond happy in Motown and, if truth serum were administered to him and to his agent firm, Reynolds Sports Management, they would tell you a solid, one-year deal would get it done, all because that's realistic for all parties.
The Tigers might jump. Not only are their farm kids not yet ready or reassuring, Detroit loves what it gets from Hunter. And if there are any doubts, you should have been in the Tigers dugout Tuesday when manager Brad Ausmus was rhapsodizing about his right fielder.
Slow turns to vintage
Ausmus was asked about Hunter at 39. The manager's face lighted up like a full moon. Ausmus said Hunter was "extremely impressive for any player at any age" and how early in 2014 the skipper "thought age might be catching up with him," but that Hunter showed him yet again that "he is a remarkable player and clubhouse presence."
This testimonial continued for long moments and might have been as expansive as Ausmus has been on any one Tigers player since he became manager 10 months ago.
It was, at least in one guy's interpretation, as much a sales pitch as it was a genuine tribute to an extraordinary person and player.
There were doubts early this year Hunter would be returning to Detroit. It wasn't so much that he wasn't hitting, although, to Ausmus' point, his bat had appeared slower during a cold spring. But soon, the bat heated up, and so, significantly, did Hunter's formerly slick defense begin to improve from its subpar state.
Hunter acknowledges all of the above, even his falloff on defense. But there were reasons.
He was still banged up and hurting from his epic tumble into the Fenway Park bullpen last October in a desperate leap to snag David Ortiz's grand slam and save what might have been a championship for Detroit.
"Concussion, shoulder, back — everything," Hunter said Thursday, taking a break in the Tigers clubhouse ahead of a final, regular-season series opener against the Twins. "I was hurting. I kept playing, because I knew adrenaline would take over."
He agrees he should have mentioned more about the concussion. It wasn't immediately apparent that he had so seriously slammed his noggin. But by this spring, even if his head was clear, his body was still recovering. Massages, therapy — he had daily rehabilitation, in part for lingering pain from October, and then for hamstring problems that knocked him out of some June games.
Detroit is the place
While he was healthy enough, technically, to play, his defense lagged because his body was at least a gear low.
"Then, in late June," Hunter said, "one day at the park, I felt free, my body was looser."
His glove and range in right have been steadily better, more Hunteresque. He loves playing for this team, this organization, this owner, he repeated Thursday. And he wants another year. Here. In Detroit.
"How many 39-year-old guys are playing in the outfield regularly in the big leagues?" he asked, his trademark grin widening. "Name a guy who's 39 who's playing regularly in the outfield."
I can't. And the Tigers can't. It's a good reason to extend a relationship that promises collective benefits.