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Ex-Tiger Hunter says there's plenty left in the tank

La Velle E. Neal III
Minneapolis Star Tribune

Prosper, Texas — Torii Hunter sat on a chair in the left side of the batter's box at Prosper High School last week, setting baseballs on a tee for Jayson Nix.

It was overcast and in the 50s, but spring training was in the air as Hunter and a couple of other players took their first swings of the new year. Hunter, rejoining the Twins after a seven-year hiatus, was talking as much as he was hitting.

"You've got to load a little bit," Hunter said to Nix, who played in the World Series with the Royals last season. "Bring the bat back, then boom!"

Nix was soon lining balls to right field, prompting Hunter to yell, "Oh my!"

Hunter, a man who could not hit a curveball when he arrived in the majors in 1997, is now breaking down swings and offering hitting tips. That's the result of playing 18 seasons. Hunter will turn 40 in July, but by all appearances he is aging gracefully.

"Paul Molitor said something to me when I was younger," Hunter said. "He said, 'I've got 20 years in the big leagues and I'm still learning.' To me, if I have two years (left) in the big leagues, that means I've got a long way to go."

Hunter is intent on being much more than a veteran mentor for the Twins. He batted .286 with 17 home runs and 83 RBIs last season with the Tigers.

Defense at this point is a bigger question for the nine-time Gold Glove outfielder. In sabermetric talk, his ultimate zone rating of minus-18.3 ranked last (16th) among all right fielders who qualified for league leaders. Hunter maintains that numbers don't tell the story and he has plenty of life left.

"Everybody knows, and I know, I'm not Torii Hunter in center field anymore," he said. "I'm 40. When I was between 20 and 35, I was pretty good. I'm sure the teams I was on knew I could play defense. I don't know where all the metric stuff came from.

"But I'm 40. I'm the oldest (position player) on the field in baseball. I'm not like these young guys who are 22, 27, 30. But I can still play solid outfield."