Hunter makes Tigers favorites in AL Central again

The Tigers have signed Torii Hunter to a two-year contract.

Tigers fans were left with an acrid taste in their mouths after their four-game World Series sweep at the hands of the San Francisco Giants. We were left waiting for next year. Now, with Thanksgiving behind us, Christmas came early with the addition of Torii Hunter to the lineup, and now many can’t wait for the new season to start. Mark your calendars: April 1, 2012, in Minnesota.

At age 37, Hunter has had a solid career and is coming off his best offensive season — a .313 batting average and driving in 92 runs. Toss in nine consecutive gold gloves, a Silver Slugger Award, good speed on the base paths, and his clubhouse presence, and the Tigers immediately become a better team, primed to again be contenders in the America League Central Division.

Hunter was selected by the fans to his first All-Star Game, in Milwaukee in 2002, becoming the first Twin since Kirby Puckett in 1995 to start an All-Star game in center field. Hunter robbed Barry Bonds of what appeared to be a home run in the first inning, leaping to bring back the ball from over the wall. That catch was later awarded as the This Year in Baseball Best Defensive Play of the Year by the fans.

In 2009, a panel of 100 baseball people, many of them members of the Baseball Hall of Fame and winners of major baseball awards, ranked Hunter number 44 on The Sporting News’ list of the 50 greatest current players in baseball.

On September 2, 2011, Hunter said in an interview with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that he wanted to retire as a member of the Angels. Heading for free agency at the end of 2012, the Yankees showed heavy interest in bringing him to the Bronx; but it was Detroit who signed the four-time All Star for a reported $26 million deal for two years.

Tigers fans may have disliked him when he played for Minnesota, often a thorn in our paws; but he’s a great fit for Detroit, ably filling Kaline’s corner and playing center to spell Austin Jackson as needed.

Hunter hits left-handed pitching well, something of which the Tigers were in sore need last season.

If the clubhouse lacked a leader last season, Hunter fills that role, too.

Although an ideal number five or six hitter, look for Leyland to pencil Hunter into the number two slot. Imagine Jackson leading off, with Hunter, Cabrera, Fielder, and Martinez following. Should Jhonny Peralta and Alex Avila rebound with solid seasons at the dish, and Andy Dirks come close to hitting what he managed in 2012, opposing pitchers will be hard-pressed to keep runs off the scoreboard.

With his son, Torii Jr., committed to playing football and baseball at Notre Dame beginning in 2013, perhaps one day Tigers fans will see Junior sporting the English D, a la Prince Fielder.

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About J. Conrad Guest

J. Conrad Guest is the author of The Cobb Legacy, Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings, and other novels. He resides in Northville. Visit him at www.jconradguest.com.