Torii Hunter is one of baseball's most exciting players. While he's not exciting in the same way that Mike Trout or Bryce Harper is, there are few outfielders that could make the defensive plays that Hunter did in his prime.
Mostly known as a defensive player with some offensive ability, Hunter has turned it on at the plate late in his career. With his 300th career home run coming Sunday afternoon against the Minnesota Twins, he's been able to put together an impressive stat line as well.
It's been a full journey for the 37-year-old from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, but is it one that deserves to be enshrined in Cooperstown?
Hunter was selected by the Minnesota Twins with the 20th overall pick in the 1993 MLB draft. As a high school draftee, it was going to take some time for the young outfielder to get used to professional baseball.
There were times where it seemed like Hunter wasn't going to make it, but he made enough of an impression to scratch his way for a handful of games with the Twins in 1997 and '98 before becoming the starting center fielder in 1999.
His first two seasons in the major leagues were admirable, but he wasn't able to drive the ball. He posted a .393 slugging percentage during that time. He also landed in manager Tom Kelly's doghouse because of his impatient approach at the plate and lack of focus.
Tom Kelly once removed Torii Hunter from a game for yawning in the outfield.— BaseballFact (@BaseballFact) November 8, 2012
Once again, it was questionable whether Hunter would make it as a major league outfielder, but the 2001 season would change that.
The Face of the Franchise
As part of the nucleus that was forged over the 2000 season, Hunter was another young player getting the opportunity to play every day. While the results weren't immediate, it would be the 2001 season that would get his career on track.
Hunter began making plays in the outfield that were plastered all over the nightly highlight shows. His bat, which had become a concern over the two previous seasons, had exploded to the tune of 27 home runs and earned him a spot in the next year's home run derby.
Twins fans were also beginning to take notice of Hunter. He was voted the starting center fielder in the 2002 MLB All-Star Game. On that July night, he made the signature play of his career when he robbed Barry Bonds of a home run in the first inning.
Just like that, Hunter had sparked interest in a Twins team that had spent the majority of the past decade in the bottom of the American League Central standings.
A new generation of Twins fans were spawned, with Hunter becoming their favorite player. Reminding fans of a young Kirby Puckett, he flashed his trademark smile and became the most marketable player on the team.
In the clubhouse, Hunter became a leader as well. His in-your-face style won over his teammates and provided several inspiring moments, including running over catcher Jamie Burke in a late-season matchup with the rival Chicago White Sox and taking a swing at a struggling Justin Morneau in 2005.
Over his 11 seasons with the Twins, Hunter won seven Gold Glove awards and appeared in a pair of All-Star Games.
When he departed after the 2007 season, many fans greeted the move with anger but understood that there was no way for the team to match the five-year contract he received from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
By the time the contract expired, Hunter was going to be 37 and a shell of the player he had been for the Twins because of all the acrobatic plays he had made.
Better With Age
When Hunter arrived in Anaheim, he was a different player from the one that had come up with the Twins nine years ago. While the younger version of Hunter had the mentality that a swinging bat is a dangerous bat, the new Hunter waited patiently for his pitch, and his walk totals increased because of it.
On the basepaths, Hunter became a sly base stealer. He hovered around 20 stolen bases with a quick first step for which pitchers rarely had an answer.
As a veteran leader on a solid Angels team, Hunter quickly fit in as he looked to prove his skeptics wrong.
Hunter had some of his best seasons offensively with the Angels. He hit .286 in five seasons with the team and won another pair of Gold Gloves while making two more All-Star appearances.
The best of those seasons came last year, when Hunter hit a career-high .313 while hitting 16 home runs and driving in 92 runs. Despite that, the Angels let him go when they decided to pursue Josh Hamilton.
Torii the Mentor
While it looks like Detroit will be the final stop of Hunter's career, it's interesting to see the legacy he's left behind in the careers of other young outfielders.
When Hunter was rising through the Twins farm system, he would routinely seek guidance from his predecessor, Puckett. Learning from him did wonders for the young Hunter, so he passed it on to the next generation of young outfielders.
Denard Span trained with Hunter during the offseason to succeed him following his departure from the Twins, and currently Austin Jackson is trying to become a complete player under the same guidance.
While his pupils haven't had the same flair that Hunter used to make plays on balls he had no business catching, they still have used those lessons to become successful major leaguers.
Hall of Famer?
So that brings us back to the main question: Is Torii Hunter a Hall of Fame player?
With nine career Gold Gloves and four All-Star appearances, Hunter has the accolades to find his way into Cooperstown. He also has comparable numbers to Puckett, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001.
The one thing that Puckett has over Hunter is two World Series championships, but there's a difference between them in that regard. Puckett won his as the key component on those championship teams, while Hunter currently is a role player with the Tigers.
It will be interesting to see if all those catches will inspire writers to make Hunter a Hall of Fame selection, but it won't be on the first ballot. If he does get in, it will probably be the same route that someone like Jim Rice took with a slow wait to finally be inducted.
If it happens, it will be a great honor for a class act such as Hunter. Even if he doesn't get in, he's left a major impact in the minds of baseball fans everywhere.
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