The Red Sox need an outfielder in 2013, but is Torii Hunter that guy?
There are quite a few free agents that should be attractive to the Red Sox this off-season. Because of that, we'll take them one at a time, and profile those who Boston might be a match with. Just because they're covered here, though, doesn't mean they're endorsed: this is meant to be an exercise in finding out whether or not the players in question should be future Red Sox.
Torii Hunter had what looks, at first blush, like an excellent rebound campaign from a down 2011. The Angels' right fielder hit .313/.365/.451 after last year's .262/.336/.429 showing. Combined with his defense, Hunter was an exceptional player in 2012 -- unheralded, even, if you want to push the issue. According to Baseball Reference, Hunter accrued 5.5 wins above replacement, 5.3 at Fangraphs, and 3.3 at Baseball Prospectus. Yet, there are many who are unsure about the viability of relying upon him for anything in the future.
They aren't wrong to worry, though. Hunter's 2012 was fueled, in part, by a .389 batting average on balls in play. As his career rate is more in the .310 range, that's a huge difference between what Hunter normally does and what he managed over the course of one season. This makes him an easy candidate for regression.
There are a few reasons that he shouldn't just be written off because of that, though. As said, defensively, Hunter is valuable. The former center fielder is out of place in that position these days, now that he's heading into his late-30s, but in a corner, he still has the range, instincts, and athletic ability to be a positive contributor. That's important in Boston's difficult right field, and if you expect him to lose another step between today and say, the end of 2014, left field is also an option.
On the offensive side, the BABIP is worrisome -- there's no way around that. But, there's plenty of reason to believe a change in environment would help him considerably as well. Angel Stadium of Anaheim is very pitcher-friendly, reducing homers, doubles, and runs, even more so for right-handers like Hunter. His BABIP helped him get around that in 2012, as it was inflated enough so as to allow him to perform well above-average relative to other players at home. Assume regression hits, though, and he'll likely need a park where his skills will be boosted.
Fenway is one such park. He'd move from a stadium that reduces doubles significantly to the one that boosts them more than any other venue in the major leagues. Fenway is also better for home run power, BABIP overall, and, these days, it's actually an easier division for hitters to succeed in relative to the AL West. It's hard to pin down exactly what the boost would be, but it's likely safe to assume that a significant portion of Hunter's regression could be slowed by the introduction of Fenway as an environment, and that the drop in his Isolated Power numbers might reverse course, too.
Even if he drops back to roughly 2011 levels, if his defense remains a positive, Hunter will be useful for the Red Sox. With one obvious caveat: it all depends on the price.
Hunter, in many ways, is similar to Cody Ross, who Boston might not retain given his contract demands. Ross is going to be better at Fenway than elsewhere, much like Hunter. However, his defense isn't as much of a positive as Hunter's, and he's no better against his fellow right-hander. Each gets some bonus points -- hard to quantify bonus points, but it's a thing -- for their clubhouse presence. Ross has been popular in clubhouses everywhere he's gone, and Hunter is the same. Hell, Hunter is already popular in Boston's clubhouse, thanks to David Ortiz and others.
How much credit do you give to that? In the grand scheme of things, not much, but if both he and Ross have that going for them, it does cancel out a potential advantage for retaining Ross rather than bringing in Hunter. Throw in that Hunter will likely sign for one fewer season, while Ross is looking for three, and Hunter gets another point in his favor.
Two years and $20-22 million seems like it will be enough to get Hunter. $10-11 million per year might seem step, and potentially risky given his age and expected regression. But, for just two seasons, with a player who could very well succeed in Fenway and help the Red Sox compete without giving up their future, it's more than fine. The fact the Angels didn't submit a qualifying offer to him is a positive as well, as he won't cost whoever signs him a draft pick.
Hunter might not be the best option on the market, in terms of what production he'll provide in 2013 and 2014. But, he might be one of the few who actually will sign for just those years, while Boston's outfield prospects develop. They have the money, the roster space, and Hunter is a player who has already let slip he'd enjoy playing here. There's risk here, but Hunter fits the bill as a viable off-season target.