By Brent Hubbard - Angelswin.com Columnist
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are the consensus favorites in the AL West for 2008. The only clear favorite in all of baseball, I believe. Despite the Mariners recent addition of former Orioles ace Erik Bedard, the gap between the teams has not decreased. It may have grown larger. And it’s due to one single player.
Torii Hunter. The Largest Free Agent Signing in Angels history.
While many believe the Angels overpaid for Hunter, I’d vehemently disagree. Torii Hunter is a great hitter, a phenomenal center fielder, but his clubhouse presence is what makes him special.
His fun-loving attitude and fiery competitive streak will fill the void left by the trade of Orlando Cabrera to the White Sox. And more. We’ll all miss Cabrera. But Hunter’s presence is infectious.
The struggles of his youth have been well documented, and I won’t restate them here. But for someone who has gone through so much pain and hardship to show such excellent sportsmanship, such a wonderful attitude, and such an sense of humor despite it all- is truly remarkable.
According to Peter Gammons recent blog entry on ESPN, Hunter’s agent stressed during contract talks that Torii’s social dreams had to be part of the contract, and the Angels eagerly agreed. This just shows what kind of a person Torii is, and as fans in Minnesota already know, he is one of the game’s truly great humanitarians, and just great people.
But lets talk baseball.
“The Angels know who they got in Torii Hunter -- a man who drips energy and preaches hope and potential.” -- Peter Gammons
Hunter will be the face of the Angels for the next five years the way he was the face of the Twins since 1999. He fits in perfectly with the Angels free-swinging plate discipline and first-to-third mentality. Adding a pure slugger, the preference of many fans during the past few offseasons, would’ve clogged the base paths, and slowed the entire team down. A move like this could’ve have changed the entire team philosophy for the negative. Look at Shaq with the Phoenix Suns. Different sport, I know, but the comparison is a valid one.
Over his Career with the Twins Hunter stole 126 bases. Not a traditional speedster, I nevertheless expect Hunter to set a career mark in Anaheim this year. Added to his 30 potential HR, could we see the first 30/30 player in Angels History? Not that far out of reach. We’ll definitely see 25 HR's and 25 steals from Hunter.
I fully expect Hunter’s presence to be felt in other parts of the lineup as well. Besides his own individual contributions, I expect Vladimir Guerrero to put up better numbers with Hunter hitting behind him in the lineup whether Hunter bats cleanup or fifth.
I think he’ll slot into the number 5 spot behind Garret Anderson. Scioscia likes the Left-Right-Left-Right batting order, so it seems that right-handed Torii would hit fifth behind lefty GA and in front of lefty Kotchman. Yet make no mistake, he is a middle of the order bat.
I expect Howie Kendrick and Chone Figgins to learn a lot from our new number 48. Casey Kotchman and Brandon Wood as well. Mike Scioscia agrees.
"I think he helps everyone here," says Scioscia. "Some guys don't like to answer questions. Torii loves it. He isn't afraid to take the heat." -- ESPN
I also expect the man who he has displaced, the Angels $50 Million center fielder of 2007, Gary Matthews Jr., to handle his position shift in stride, partly because they are such good friends, and partly because I believe Matthews and Hunter will develop a fun yet competitive rivalry with each other on the field and in the batters box. I’m betting we’ll see at least one catch that rivals Erstad’s catch in 2000 from each of them. I’d not be surprised if the writers awarded two Gold Gloves in Anaheim at the end of the season. And I think they both get 20/20, which hasn’t been seen in Anaheim since 2000.
And while Hunter’s contributions in center field and in the heart of the batting order will be a needed boost to the World Series Title hopes of the Angels in 2008. It is his infectious attitude, his boundless energy and encouraging words that will carry this team to a title.