Hunter not letting up in 18th big league season
LOS ANGELES -- Torii Hunter admits he might have lost "a half-step" at age 38, but that's about as far as he will go in concession to Father Time.
"I think I'm as good as I've ever been," Hunter said. "I'm an athlete, a five-tool player. There aren't that many of those. I can still do things I did as a kid; I can dunk a basketball. Why stop [playing]? I've been blessed with this talent, and I want to keep using it as long as I have it."
Alighting in Dodger Stadium on Tuesday for a two-game Interleague series with the Dodgers, Detroit's right fielder was the fully engaged lightning rod the Angels and their fans came to love during his five years in Anaheim. Hunter sounded like a guy very comfortable with the idea of playing into his 40s.
He's wrapping up a two-year, $26 million free-agent deal he signed with the Tigers after the 2012 season. While the Tigers' policy is not to discuss contract extensions during the season, Dave Dombrowski, their president, CEO and general manager, doesn't hide his admiration of Hunter.
"They don't make 'em any better," Dombrowski said. "Torii's been tremendous, a true professional on and off the field. We couldn't ask for any more than he's given us.
"Generally, with our situation, we don't do many things during the season. The one thing we're focused on is to win during the season. I would doubt we'd do anything [contractually]. If we do one guy, other guys in that position will say, 'What about me?'"
Hunter has no problem playing the waiting game. He knows the prospective free-agent class of outfielders next winter is thin, and there are few who can do what he does on a consistent basis.
"I love it here," Hunter said. "I'll do whatever the team needs me to do. I hope we can work it out, but if we don't, I'll go back into free agency."
Dombrowski, in his 36th season in the professional game, owns a World Series title to go with all of his executive titles. That came with a 1997 Marlins team he molded as GM, moving to Detroit after the 2001 season.
Hunter has appeared in postseason play seven times. Twice -- with the 2009 Angels and the Tigers last October -- he came within two American League Championship Series victories of a World Series.
"I love this team, and I think we've got a shot at going all the way," Hunter said. "That's what keeps me going. I'll leave the individual stuff to the young guys. I've got my nine Gold Gloves and my Silver Slugger Awards [2009 and 2013]. I want that ring."
Hunter hit a career-high .313 in his final season with the Angels, and batted .304 with the Tigers last season. Suddenly, with a few adjustments, he is turning on pitches and launching them the way he did in his 20s in Minnesota, when he had six seasons of 26-plus homers, with a high of 31.
Through the first five games of his 19th Major League season, Hunter is driving the ball like Miguel Cabrera, his buddy. Hunter carried three homers and seven RBIs into the series opener against Dan Haren, his former Angels teammate.
"My defense always overshadowed my offense," Hunter said. "That's why the Silver Slugger Award means so much to me. I was hitting 29, 31, 28 homers [with the Twins], and everybody thought of me as a defensive player.
"As far as my hitting, I think I've gotten smarter. I've put a lot of time and work into it."
Hunter spent part of his winter studying video of other hitters, notably one of his Angels protégés, Mike Trout. This spring, Hunter began absorbing the wisdom of another popular Angels star of the past, new Tigers hitting coach Wally Joyner.
"Wally's been unbelievable, stressing staying inside the ball," Hunter said. "And I've been watching a lot of Trout video. That's kind of funny, him being my guy and all. Mike's such a great hitter. Totally different player from Miggy, though.
"It's not fair to compare those two guys. They're both great, in their own way. Trout does it all -- everything. But nobody can hit like Miggy. He's going to play out his contract, all 10 years, at first base."
Reworking his lineup to conform to the National League game, new Tigers manager Brad Ausmus had Hunter -- normally the No. 2 hitter in front of Cabrera -- in the No. 3 spot, Miggy dropping to cleanup. Swift Rajai Davis, customarily a catalyst in the No. 9 hole, assumed the leadoff role, with Ian Kinsler batting second.
Victor Martinez, the regular DH, took first base, hitting fifth. Cabrera returns to third base, where Nick Castellanos has made a big impression on Hunter.
"He's only 22," Hunter said, "and he can play. We're athletic, with Austin [Jackson], Davis, Kinsler going first to third."
The Tigers lost their acrobatic shortstop, Jose Iglesias, with stress fractures in both legs. They're going with another ex-Angel, Andrew Romine.
No matter how they shape it, the Tigers have a lineup that should produce sufficient support behind a dynamic rotation fronted by Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. Joe Nathan, Hunter's old teammate in Minnesota, has arrived as the lockdown closer the club has been seeking.
"We have a good clubhouse with Torii, and Victor Martinez is like that, too," Dombrowski said. "Miguel maybe isn't as vocal as some guys, but he handles himself well and gets along with everybody. Verlander and Scherzer work their tails off, and Nathan is another one of those guys [with leadership skills].
"Brad knows we have a really good group of guys who get along well -- and play hard, too."
Lyle Spencer is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.