Josh Hamilton appeared to be the big prize in this year's class of free agents. But thus far into the offseason, it's another outfielder who looks like the more popular target.
It's become increasingly clear that the Los Angeles Angels won't retain the right fielder. Even if the Halos wanted to keep him, they might not be able to match other offers Hunter might receive on the open market. Not without trading Vernon Wells to create some payroll space, according to the Los Angeles Times' Mike DiGiovanna.
Two of the teams showing heavy interest in the early part of the free-agent process are the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. It's yet another chapter in the ages-long battle between the AL East rivals. But which team needs Hunter more? Where is he a better fit?
Though he'll turn 38 next season, there's no indication that Hunter wouldn't make a major contribution to any team he signs with. He hit .313 with an .817 OPS, 16 home runs and 92 RBI. Hunter played in 140 games, but left the team after his son was arrested.
After returning to the Angels, Hunter expressed concerns over being away from his family and suburban Dallas home for eight months of the year. That could indicate that the outfielder would prefer to play with the nearby Texas Rangers. The Rangers would certainly have a need for Hunter—especially if they lose Hamilton.
But early in the free-agent process, it's been the Yankees and Red Sox who have been linked to Hunter in hot-stove rumblings.
Shortly after the season ended, the New York Daily News' Mark Feinsand tweeted that a source told him the Yankees had interest in Hunter. Since that report, however, there hasn't been much noise regarding the Yanks making a play for him.
His right-handed bat would be a nice fit with Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira in the middle of the Yankees' lineup. Hunter could provide some insurance if Alex Rodriguez's skills continue to decline next season.
Perhaps general manager Brian Cashman is waiting to see what sorts of offers Hunter receives before planning his approach. Let other teams set the market first. Then the Yankees can swoop in and nab Hunter at the last minute if they're in a position to do so.
The risk, of course, is that another team will make an aggressive offer right away to Hunter and he takes the contract. That club might end up being the Red Sox, who have made their interest in Hunter rather public.
According to WEEI.com's Rob Bradford, a source told him that Boston is indeed pursuing Hunter and that designated hitter David Ortiz is helping in the recruiting effort. The two are good friends going back to their days with the Minnesota Twins.
During the press conference announcing his new two-year, $26 million deal, Ortiz shared a recent conversation he had with Hunter.
"I talked to him the other day because he heard Texas was going to try and sign me, because his mind might have changed," said Ortiz. "He said, 'If I was going to think about Boston it is because you are there.' I told him not to worry."
Unlike the Yankees, the Red Sox do have some in-house options in Daniel Nava and Ryan Kalish. They would also like to bring back Cody Ross, though his pursuit of a three-year, $25 million contract may have scared Boston off.
But Hunter would be an excellent alternative to Ross—probably even a better one.
Boston needs a right-handed bat to go with Ortiz and Jacoby Ellsbury in the middle of its batting order. Or he could bat toward the top of the order, as he did with the Angels, and provide some pop behind Ellsbury.
Hunter would also provide some leadership for a team that just hired a new manager and has been trying to find its way ever since collapsing at the end of the 2011 season. Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia are certainly leaders in the Red Sox clubhouse, but a steady, veteran hand that's come in from elsewhere would be beneficial as well.
Boston general manager Ben Cherington is smart to get out in front on Hunter (though no contract offer has been made yet). Besides the Yankees and Rangers, other teams such as the Detroit Tigers, Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves could get in on the bidding.
Back in July, Hunter said he would only consider playing for the Yankees, Rangers and Dodgers if he didn't re-sign with the Angels, So those first two teams might have an advantage. However, the market has opened up for him, perhaps even more than anticipated.
Hunter has never played in a World Series, so that might influence his choice heavily. At this point, the Yankees look like more of a championship contender than the Red Sox.
Yet it would be a mistake to write Boston off after overhauling its roster. The trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers wasn't about rebuilding, so much as creating payroll wiggle room and taking control of something that had gotten out of hand.
Hunter could be a big part of the Red Sox returning to playoff contention. Cherington and Ortiz will have to convince him of that in the weeks to come.
Follow @iancass on Twitter