The Detroit Tigers had four major weaknesses in 2012:
1. Right field. Tigers right fielders hit .235 with 13 home runs, ranking last in the AL in OPS and runs scored at the position. On top of that, they ranked 29th in the majors in Defense Runs Saved at minus-17. Most of this came courtesy of Brennan Boesch.
2. Designated hitter. Tigers DHs -- mostly Delmon Young -- ranked 12th in the AL in OPS, 13th in home runs and 12th in OBP. The return of Victor Martinez should provide a big upgrade here, even if Martinez doesn't match his .330/.380/.470 line of 2011.
3. Second base. Tigers second basemen -- Ryan Raburn, Ramon Santiago, Danny Worth, Omar Infante -- hit .213 and ranked last in the AL in OPS and runs scored and next-to-last among AL teams in Defensive Runs Saved at minus-8. A full season of Infante will provide adequate defense and at least slightly improved offense.
4. Overall team defense. Defense Runs Saved evaluated the Tigers at minus-32 runs -- 25th in the majors -- but as mentioned, the highest percentage of that came from right field, not any one individual in the infield.
You can include the bullpen and left field, but those were more mediocre than weak. Throw all that in the mixer and obviously right field was the most important position for the Tigers to upgrade, which they did Wednesday with the sensible signing of Torii Hunter to a two-year, $26 million contract. It won't get the hype of a Josh Hamilton or Zack Greinke signing, but it could be one of the best deals of the offseason.
Hunter is coming off arguably the best season of his career, at age 36, hitting .300 for the first time and accumulating a career-best 5.5 Baseball-Reference WAR. That figure was fueled by two primary data points: (1) the .313 batting average, which Mark Simon tweeted included a .449 batting average on balls in play over his final 63 games -- for the season, Hunter registered a .389 BABIP, second-highest in the majors to Dexter Fowler's .390 mark; (2) 15 Defensive Runs Saved, third-best among all right fielders.
Based on 2012 WAR numbers, Hunter is a nearly 7-win improvement over Boesch, a testament to Hunter's under-the-radar campaign and Boesch's all-around dismal play. Boesch was so bad that the Tigers eventually dumped him for an Andy Dirks-Avisail Garcia platoon late in the season, but Garcia needs more time in the minors and Dirks is currently the best option for left field.
Of course, it's not likely that Hunter will repeat his 2012 numbers, especially on offense. Hunter's walk rate was actually his lowest since 2007 and his strikeout rate the highest of his career, so I don't think we saw a new approach that suddenly turned him into a .300 hitter. Batting second behind Mike Trout may have meant he saw a lot of fastballs to feast on as well. The high BABIP suggests a fluke season. Still, even if Hunter returns to his 2011 line of .262/.336/.429, he's a decent bat and a big improvement with the glove over Boesch. Hunter was about a 3-win player in 2010 and 2011, and that's probably a better estimate of his value moving forward. We're still talking a 4- or 5-win improvement in right field for the Tigers. At $13 million per season, it's a good, low-risk signing.
Suddenly, the Tigers' lineup looks a lot better than what we saw Jim Leyland run out there during the World Series:
LF Andy Dirks
RF Torii Hunter
DH Victor Martinez
2B Omar Infante
What's even scarier for the rest of the AL Central is that the Tigers may not be done. They could sign a closer to replace free agent Jose Valverde and, who knows, maybe another outfielder like Nick Swisher or Hamilton is still in play. The Tigers lost over $20 million in 2012 payroll with the departures of Valverde, Young and Brandon Inge, so they may still have some of owner Mike Ilitch's cash to play with.