Torii Hunter's best (last?) title shot

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The Los Angeles Angels' new front office will have plenty of tricky decisions to make in the next eight months, but they'll have only one that's agonizing.
After five seasons as the heart, the soul, the conscience and the smiling face of the team, Torii Hunter is a free agent next fall.

If baseball were played on a computer, the machine would spit out the decision in nanoseconds. Young players Mark Trumbo and Mike Trout have talents (and salaries) that are pushing hard for playing time. The Angels desperately need one of their veteran outfielders to step aside, offer some salary relief and give an up-and-coming player a shot. Teams rarely pass on an opportunity to get younger and cheaper.

If it were practically any other player, the decision might be made already. Hunter will turn 37 in July and his style -- his dives and leaps in the outfield, his jackknifes into the stands, his hard swings and head-first slides -- has put more wear on his body than the average aging ballplayer.

And yet nobody can seem to stomach the notion of him playing elsewhere. Mike Scioscia looked like he wanted to grab me by the throat and squeeze when I asked if this might be his last spring with Hunter.

"I'm not going to get into last springs, first springs, whatever," Scioscia said. "Torii is a unique player, not only talented physically, but very mentally strong. His presence in that clubhouse is felt. I am not going to refer to this being his last year. I'm not doing that."

Maybe word of Scioscia's reaction had gotten upstairs to general manager Jerry Dipoto by the time I approached him a few days later. He also got agitated when I brought up Hunter's future, and he has only known him a few months. Dipoto has been scouting Hunter since shortly after he broke into the majors, so he's aware of Hunter's intangibles.

"Torii's makeup, his leadership skills, they make a big difference on this team," Dipoto said. "It makes a big difference for the guys in that clubhouse, which is exactly why I don't want to get into discussing what may happen six months, 10 months from now. We don't know.

"To try to create drama where right now there is none …"

Oh, but the drama already is there and it figures to build all season. No Angels player will be living and dying with wins and losses like Hunter. He has won nine Gold Gloves, played in four All-Star Games and reached the playoffs six times. He has earned more than $100 million. He has never played in a World Series. After the Angels skimmed the top talent from the top of the free-agent pool this winter, signing Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, 2012 is Hunter's best shot.

Who knows? It may be his last.

"I had my money, I had my free agency. It's not about that. It's about winning," Hunter said. "Give me a ring. I haven't got that."

Six months ago, Hunter said he would retire rather than play in another uniform. After a healthier, more productive second half and a winter off, he has changed his mind. He wants to play a few more years and he will do it for another team if it comes to that. It's not his preference, however, and he said he understands what Garret Anderson felt when he signed with the Atlanta Braves, at age 37, before the 2009 season.

"I'm going to do whatever it takes to stay here. If it gets to a point where we have to part ways, I understand," Hunter said. "I still appreciate everything."

Hunter's popularity is practically universal. He takes time to get to know fans. He establishes relationships with superstars and clubhouse managers alike. Angels beat writers can hardly stomach the notion of Hunter moving on and yielding the clubhouse to the more-intimidating presence of Albert Pujols.

But it's the players' feelings that concern the team most, needless to say. In 2010, Hunter moved from center field to right so the Angels could fix their outfield defense. Peter Bourjos was 23 and nervous enough already. He had no idea how a 12-year veteran would react to being pushed into a corner because he had arrived from Salt Lake. Hunter cleared that up.

"From the minute I got called up, I was nervous trying to fill his shoes and he said, 'Hey, you're a great defensive center fielder, you're out here for a reason. I'm here for you,'" Bourjos said. "I don't know what it would have been like if he hadn't done that."

Hunter likes to joke that he's now a sage, but he's not a coach and he's not a team psychologist. He's one of the best defensive right fielders in the game and he has given the team at least 21 home runs and 78 RBIs in each of his first four seasons. He also has set a tone on the field that might be more important than his work sitting in front of his locker.

"When he's out on the field, I don't think there's anybody as passionate about the game as he is," Howie Kendrick said. "He plays hard. He's a very intense individual on the field and then you get him off the field, he's just a different person."

I wouldn't want to be Jerry Dipoto this November.