Friday, August 17, 2012
Dodgers and Torii Hunter look like a perfect fit
By Mark Saxon
His career in the United States has just begun, so take it for what it is, but Yasiel Puig is playing like a man who doesn't plan on spending his early 20s in the minor leagues.
Matt Kemp and Torii Hunter already have a close relationship, and it could only blossom if Hunter were to come to the Dodgers next season.
The Dodgers' $42 million Cuban prospect is batting .394 with four home runs and 11 RBIs in his first two stops in the minors, the Dodgers having just promoted him to Class A Rancho Cucamonga.
No matter how many extra-base hits Puig piles up in this dwindling minor league season, though, the Dodgers know he isn't going to be ready to play left field for them next April. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound outfielder is 21, five years younger than his former teammate Yoenis Cespedes, who started his U.S. career in the major leagues. It's a pretty good bet Puig will spend much of next season at Rancho Cucamonga and, if things go well, visit Double-A, putting him on target for 2014 or 2015 in Dodger Stadium.
That leaves the Dodgers with a two-year hole to fill in left field, a swampy patch of underproduction for them all season until general manager Ned Colletti traded some minor league pitchers to land Shane Victorino last month.
Victorino and Josh Hamilton will be two of the best free-agent outfielders on the market coming this November, and you could make an argument for the Dodgers' chasing either player. Victorino wants to play here and solves their leadoff problem. Hamilton solves their power problem and gives them a right-left combination in the middle of their order, along with Matt Kemp, that would be the best in baseball.
But at 31, Victorino probably will be looking for more than a two-year deal, and Hamilton, who might be coming off an MVP season, figures to be looking for something in the nine-figure area. The Dodgers have other pressing needs, primarily third base, first base and starting pitching.
The perfect stop gap might be one phone call and 35 miles away. The Angels desperately need to create a little room in their outfield with Mike Trout, Mark Trumbo, Peter Bourjos and Vernon Wells on the roster. As much as he has loved his five years in Anaheim, Torii Hunter has acknowledged it's a long shot he'll be playing there next season. He said earlier this season he would play for only three teams beside the Angels: the New York Yankees, the Texas Rangers and the Dodgers.
At 37, Hunter won't have much choice but to accept a one- or two-year deal. It also wouldn't hurt him to move to an even lower-stress part of the outfield. He's already accepted a move to right field, so trying the other corner probably wouldn't be a big deal. He owns a home in Newport Coast, so -- presuming he doesn't mind having the same commute Kobe Bryant has -- that would be an easy move.
Hunter isn't going to hit 35-plus home runs, as Hamilton will, or steal 30 bases, as Victorino might, but he's one of the game's most consistent outfielders. He bats .280 or .290 every year with 20-something home runs and 80 to 90 RBIs and can hit anywhere from second to sixth. He won nine Gold Gloves playing center field and could have easily won one last year playing right.
He plays as hard, and with as much joy, as anyone in the game. He is a perfect ambassador for the organization because he genuinely enjoys talking to people from outside the clubhouse, including members of the media and fans.
And there's one more free bonus, one that might be a key to the whole thing: He'd be a great influence on Kemp. After his breakout 2009 season, Kemp spent part of his offseason living in Hunter's Dallas-area home. He liked being around Hunter so much, he started shopping for a home in the area. The two players grew up near one another, Hunter in Arkansas, Kemp in Oklahoma.
"Torii is a great guy," Kemp said at the time. "He invited me out to Dallas to work out with him, and I had a lot of fun. He plays the game right. He plays hard and he's a superstar."
Kemp doesn't need another player to hold his hand at this point. He's dealt with superstar-level scrutiny Hunter never quite reached. But, when Kemp has struggled, it never has been the result of faltering ability. It has been the result of drifting focus or a lackadaisical approach, issues Hunter could help him resolve. Earlier this season, Hunter convinced Howie Kendrick to do outfield sprints with him before day games.
It might be an opportunity the Dodgers soon find too good to pass up.