The case against Torii Hunter helping the Tigers

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It’s not hard to see why the Tigers were regular-season disappointments in 2012; the bottom half of the lineup, which was so productive the year before, stumbled badly:

OPS by lineup spot, from 2011 to 2012
No. 5:  .797 to .671
No. 6: .842 to .654
No. 7: .720 to .700
No. 8: .768 to .695
No. 9: .637 to .603

Victor Martinez was supposed to hit fifth, but he missed the entire season. Delmon Young, Jhonny Peralta, Alex Avila, Brennan Boesch and a lousy assortment of second basemen all contributed to the funk.

In adding Torii Hunter on a two-year, $26 million contract on Wednesday, the Tigers took a step towards lengthening their lineup, even if the plan is to hit Hunter second initially. Martinez is expected to DH regularly and hit fifth. Andy Dirks, who will be moving from right to left, figures to hit sixth against righties.

That Hunter is an upgrade for the Tigers seems pretty obvious. For all of the praise heaped on youngster Avisail Garcia, there’s little reason to think he’s ready to be a full-time player in the majors.

I’m just not at all convinced that Hunter was the right upgrade for the Tigers. He’s worth the $13 million per year and more if he has two more seasons at his 2012 level, but the chances of that happening are very slim.

Before suddenly hitting a career-best .313 last year, Hunter had never in his entire career deviated more than 25 points away from a .275 average; his high was .299 and his low was .250. He came in at .281 in 2010 and .262 in 2011.

Going along with the fluky average was a career-low isolated slugging percentage. Hunter hit just 16 homers after finishing with at least 20 in every full season of his career. He hit 23 in both 2010 and ’11. He didn’t make up for it with extra doubles, either; he hit just 24.

Hunter also had one of the lowest walk rates of his career, with just 38 bases on balls in his 140 games.

One might say he was cutting down on his swing in an attempt to stroke more singles. But if that were the case, how would one explain his career-high strikeout rate? Hunter fanned in 23 percent of his plate appearances last season, up from 16 in 2010 and 19 in 2011.

Everything except Hunter’s batting average on balls in play suggests he was on the decline, and no hitting statistic is more prone to random variation that BABIP. If Hunter had hit his usual .300-.310 on balls in play instead of a ridiculously high .389, he would have had his worst season since 1999.

Maybe the whole thing was a fluke. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Hunter hit a few more homers and strike out a bit less next season. But his average is coming down, probably way down. If he hits his usual .270, then he’s not going to be all that great of a No. 2 hitter. And if he falls to .250-.260, hardly an unlikely possibility at age 37, he’s really more of a No. 6 or No. 7 hitter.

It’s not a signing worth condemning, not when it’s only two years. Hunter still plays very good defense in right field. He gets all kinds of points for leadership. He’s just not likely to be quite the upgrade the Tigers think they’re getting.

2017 Winter Meetings Preview

Craig Calcaterra
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, FL — The baseball world has descended on the Swan and Dolphin Resort at Disney World for the 2017 Winter Meetings. There’s a lot of work to be done.

The two biggest names on the market — Shohei Ohtani and Giancarlo Stanton — have found new homes, but so far only 33 of baseball’s 249 free agents have signed, almost all of them minor. Still looking for a home: Yu Darvish, J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Jake Arrieta, CC Sabathia, Lorenzo Cain, Wade Davis, Lance Lynn, Greg Holland and many, many more. In early November we ran down the top free agents, position-by-position, to help you get a jump on who is available and what your team is looking at as it seeks to fill its needs.

It’s not just players looking for homes this week, however. It’s teams looking to make up for their failures in the Ohtani and Stanton derbies. The Cardinals and Giants both went big to get Stanton and came up empty. The Giants were likewise in Ohtani, but no dice. Baseball’s worst team in 2017 is obviously willing to spend some money to improve, and now they will look elsewhere to spend it. The Red Sox weren’t in on those two, but since it’s biggest rival landed Giancarlo Stanton, GM Dave Dombrowski will no doubt be kicking the tires hard on J.D. Martinez or Eric Hosmer to try to keep pace. The Mariners acquired a lot of international pool money in their quest for Ohtani, but they could still use a starting pitcher or two, so perhaps they may look at, say, Jake Arrieta? Lance Lynn? Yu Darvish? Well, they should, but who knows if they will.

Despite the sheer number of available free agents, this is a thin free agent class in terms of talent. That means that, for a team to improve significantly, they may be better served by making a trade. The Marlins already traded Stanton, but their fire sale does not seem to be over. Could they deal the newly-acquired Starlin Castro? Christian Yelich? Marcel Ozuna? Bet on yes, and bet on any team wishing to spend prospects instead of free agent cash to take what Miami is unloading. Other potential trade candidates: Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen, Rays starter Chris Archer and third baseman Evan Longoria and Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler.

Trade deals and free agent negotiations take place behind closed doors at the Swan and Dolphin. One of the major public activities of the Winter Meetings is when all 30 of the managers meet and greet the press. This year there are six new men at the helm: Dave Martinez in Washington, Mickey Callaway with the Mets, Gabe Kapler — Baseball’s Most Handsome Manager — in Philly, Alex Cora in Boston, Aaron Boone with the Yankees and Rob Gardenhire with the Tigers. I’ll be in the scrum for a lot of these guys — they do them two at a time so I can’t see everyone — and will let you know if they say anything fun. Or if any of them slug me for saying that they’re ugly.

Outside of the transactions and the Hall of Fame stuff, we have the more mundane Winter Meetings business. Indeed, the vast majority of the people at the Meetings aren’t there for transactions. They’re there to network, seek jobs and discuss the business of baseball like any other industry convention. Ever year we hear about a rule change or a proposal for future rule changes at the Meetings. The big one everyone is talking about this offseason is the possibility of a pitch clock.

The final event of the Winter Meetings is the Rule 5 Draft, which will take place at 8am on Thursday morning. You likely have no idea who most of the players who will be selected are, but here’s a good place to start your research on that. If your team takes someone in the draft, the most important thing to know is that he’ll either be on the big league roster all year or he’ll have to be returned to his original team. Well, they could be stashed on the disabled list with phantom injuries so they won’t have to be returned, but no team would ever do that, would they? Perish the thought.

So, yes, there’s a lot to be done. I’ll be on the scene down here at Disney World, bringing you all the best hot stove business we have to offer and, as usual, some more fun odds and ends from baseball’s biggest offseason event.