By Bruce Levine-
(CBS) The Cubs’ search for a leader to help their young players learn how to win should begin with a conversation with Torii Hunter, the 39-year-old outfielder who is a free agent once again. On Monday, news came that Hunter intends to continue his playing career after he expressed some uncertainty following his Tigers’ season-ending loss to the Orioles on Sunday.
The first thing a Cubs fan might ask is, “What can an older player whose best days are behind him do for a roster that has the youngest average age in baseball?” The answer is just about everything you need from a leader of men over nearly two decades.
Hunter hasn’t been on a World Series club in his 18-year-career, so drawing him to a team like Chicago may take some convincing, but a conversation with a quality leader could be just the right salvo for an organization looking to define its identity. Going forward in the near future, leaders like Hunter have been identified by the Cubs front office as a crucial need.
Before you stop reading this missive, please understand that adding Hunter wouldn’t recreate a Derek Jeter- or Paul Konerko-like farewell tour. Even though Hunter is one year younger than Jeter and one year older than Konerko, his skill set is still very much intact. His 83 RBIs in 2014 would have led the Cubs in that department, and his .286 batting average and 17 homers would’ve been good for seond-best on the team.
Want further proof this on-the-field part of the equation can work for a player who may be the oldest in the league next season? Hunter played in 142 games in 2014. That’s more games than any Cub played in last season. This isn’t to suggest he would be playing that many without the advantage of the designated hitter in the National League, but with Victor Martinez locked in as Detroit’s DH ,Hunter already played most of his games in the outfield.
“We would like to add to the outfield mix,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said last Tuesday. “The outfield is always a place where you can add talent and the parts can fit well together. Just because we have three guys (Arismendy Alcantrara, Jorge Soler and Chris Coghlan) that can go out and form an Opening Day outfield, it does not mean we are content.”
The best attributes the upbeat Hunter brings are leadership and fellowship. If you asked players their favorite opposing player to talk to and watch play, many would tell you Hunter. In a clubhouse where the young leaders like Rizzo and Starlin Castro are still evolving, the addition of Hunter would be vital.
Even young stars like those two need a friendly reminder from time to time to hustle or tone it down from an on-field source. In the leadership area, Hunter has no peer, as he’s a baseball descendant of Kirby Puckett. An always-realistic Hall of Fame outfielder from the Chicago projects, the late Puckett taught Hunter and his teammates by example. His mantra stated a simple reality that playing baseball at the top level is a gift and a honor that always must be remembered.
Hunter has taken that credo and run with it. Two more seasons of doing it the North Side might help the young Cubs players to a higher ground sooner than expected.
Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.