Hunter seeks return to Angels, but will pieces fit?

Hunter seeks return to Angels, but will pieces fit?

ANAHEIM -- Over the last few days, as his tenure with the Angels has reached what could very well be its final few weeks, Torii Hunter has paid extra attention to the posters in the right-field bleachers at Angel Stadium.

"I saw a big one the other day," Hunter beamed. "You know they have 'Toriitown,' the big cardboard things, fans standing in a row? Well they had another one one day that said, 'Keep Torii,' and I just thought that was special. And now I hear about the T-shirts [with the same message]. I'm very thankful, man. I go out there and play hard, and people respect my game, the way I treat people and the way I approach the game. I think people see that. And I'm thankful that they see that. But it's all up to the Angels."

Technically, whether or not the 37-year-old Hunter returns to the team he's spent the past five seasons of his sparkling career with is a mutual decision.

But essentially, as Hunter said, it is up to the Angels. It's up to the club because its current outfield situation makes it difficult -- almost impractical -- to justify re-signing him this offseason. It's up to the Angels because Hunter has openly voiced his desire to return to Anaheim since the start of 2012. He says it off camera and on it. He has expressed it to the front office and will gladly tell any reporter who asks him.

If Hunter were on a mountain, he'd probably shout it from there, too.

"I want to stay," he said again. "Everybody knows that. But if it comes down to it, and I have to be a free agent -- [I've] been there before, man. Minnesota let me go, and hopefully the Angels don't let me go.

"It's rare, besides Derek Jeter, that a guy stays with the same team [for his whole career]. And I really want to call this place home. I want to retire here. But if it's not going to happen, no animosity, no nothing. I love them, and I'll always love them. I'll always come back to do things, whatever, years from now, because this organization is A-1 to me."

Hunter emphasizes that his primary focus remains on this season and reaching the playoffs -- a faint hope now that the Angels are 4 1/2 games back of the second American League Wild Card spot with only 12 games left. He isn't stressed, worried or consumed by lingering free agency.

Why should he be? It's not like Hunter would have a hard time finding work.

In fact, Hunter's 16th season -- one in which he has a realistic chance to hit .300 for the first time -- may be one of his most impressive. Manager Mike Scioscia will tell you it's the best offensive year Hunter has had since joining the Angels in 2008. He'll also tell you Hunter should, hands down, win the Gold Glove for his work in right field -- and Scioscia is not prone to hard-line stances.

Hunter was placed in the No. 2 spot, between Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, in early June. Since then, he's gained new life, going back to the slap-hitting, short-swinging ways of his youth to post a second-half batting average that's tied for the third highest in the AL.

But Hunter's reach goes way beyond his current numbers -- .305 average, 15 homers, 81 RBIs -- or even his standout defense at a position that's still relatively new to him.

He is, as general manager Jerry Dipoto put it, "One of the best people you're ever going to meet in this game."

"I'd miss him a lot," said Trout, who has benefited greatly under Hunter's tutelage. "I don't really want him to go anywhere. He wants to be back. It's baseball. It's a business. I really want him to come back, though."

The question for the Angels' front office isn't really whether they want to bring Hunter back. It's can they, with an outfield that has Trout and Mark Trumbo already solidified, a young Peter Bourjos still waiting in the wings, and an expensive Vernon Wells on the payroll for two more seasons.

"I think a great deal of him, and he knows that," Dipoto said. "And he knows that I'm not alone in that thinking. That resonates from me, Mike, [owner] Arte [Moreno], the front office in general, his teammates. Torii is very well-respected, deservedly so, and at the same time, Torii also understands that it is a team game, and that decisions will be made based on the greater good of the organization as we move forward.

"His desire to be here is certainly shared. We'd love to have him. Now if that's the smartest thing for the Angels to do, we'll do it. And if there is a decision to be made on that, at the appropriate time, that pulls him in another direction because the team benefits most, then that's the way we'll have to go."

Over the offseason -- which, based on the standings, may only be a couple weeks away -- one of the Angels' biggest decisions will revolve around what to do with a crowded outfield that seemingly has no natural fit for Hunter.

Hunter understands it'll take some creative wheeling and dealing in order for him to return.

"Yeah," he said, solemnly. "Things have to happen."

But Hunter is also firm on his own stance.

"For me, it's not about greed and getting all you can get," he said. "I've made good money. Now I just want to win. And I can see this team winning in the near future. Whether it's this year, whether it's next year, I can see it -- the potential. Why would I want to leave a place I want to stay and I know is going to win?"

Sometimes, though, it's just not that simple.

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.