April 17, 2014

Travis Hafner Returns, but are the Indians Better Off?

At 7:33pm EST on Wednesday night, Cleveland Indians designated hitter Travis Hafner took his first pitch since August 5, a curve ball that crossed right through the middle of the plate. Approximately two minutes later, he took a 90-mile-per-hour fastball off of his left elbow, proceeded to remove his at-bat armor and then slowly trot down the first base, barely-buttoned jersey and all.

Month-long breaks between plate appearances have unfortunately become commonplace in the waining career of Hafner. Missing time after knee surgery earlier this season, the 35-year-old’s latest run in with the injury fairy left him with a bulging disc in his back; just a few days after his wife gave birth to their second son, it was the slugging lefty who was receiving an epidural.

Typically, when a player comes back from injury, especially a member of the Cleveland Indians where depth isn’t exactly a key descriptor of the team’s annual roster, celebration is had.

Year after year, injuries have been an element of excuse in Cleveland, underachievement laced in disappointment and what-could-have-beens. This year, however, as the core members of the Tribe have remained relatively healthy1, the excuses have turned into shoulder shrugs and hands thrown in the air out of disgust. With that, as general manger Chris Antonetti speaks of these last few weeks of the regular season being used as a means to gauge exactly what it is this team has heading into the winter months, the four pitches that Hafner took on a chilly Wednesday evening in front of roughly 17 non-Indians employees, were simply the product of an indefensible decision by the team’s front office to activate the player, and the coaching staff for placing him into the starting lineup.

Over the course of his tenure with the Cleveland Indians, Hafner has been nothing short of the ultimate professional and a man who, when a step back is taken, Clevelanders typically opt to embrace with open arms. We are talking about a man who was once in the talk for league MVP, putting up OPS totals which would, if amassed today, top both Los Angeles’ Mike Trout and Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera2. A man who, while the rest of his teammates are donning on their freshly pressed collared shirts and pomade, is unrolling an Angry Birds t-shirt down his 240-pound frame. A man who willingly adapted to a nickname derived from a donkey. A man who famously wore a shirt around the clubhouse which stated “I may not be smart, but I can lift heavy things.”

But Hafner has also become the poster child for the underachievement which has plagued Progressive Field since the winter that bridged the 2007 and 2008 seasons. An albatross of a contract, Hafner’s $13 million salary for 2012 represents roughly 20 percent of the team’s $66 million which is currently owed3. To chastise a man for being handsomely compensated for his profession would be nothing but a cold concoction made of one-part jealousy and one-part communism, the entire spirit garnished with a dash of spite, and poured over ice cubes made of resentment. But to brush it off as a sunk cost while the rest of the team is forced to be comprised of piecemeal and spreadsheet-based hope, well, that’s just not being a sports fan in the city of Cleveland.

The Indians being willing to play Hafner down the home stretch of what will likely be his final season in Cleveland4 is undoubtedly a gentleman’s move, one rooted in respect that may be aided along by Paul Dolan requiring Hafner to be trotted out as much as possible; after all, if the team is going to pay him more than the entire starting infield5 and he does not even require a glove, Bernie Lomax may as well have a No. 48 jersey plastered to his back. Whether or not the few thousand fans in attendance on the team’s final home game will have the wherewithal to understand that this could be their very last glimpse of Hafner remains to be seen. But the point remains, every at-bat he gets over the rest of September is one that can be given to another, hopefully younger, player.

Relief pitcher Rafael Perez was shut down for the season after a “setback.” Had the team reported Hafner being the victim of similar issues, would any fan bat an eye?

As team president Mark Shapiro hinted earlier this week, while the team will have considerable money coming off of the books (thanks to Hafner’s buyout), they are skeptical of the quality of the free agent market. Certainly, this will allow the Indians to take on some salary in any potential trades6, the core of the 2013 roster will remain largely similar to the one that is currently producing the worst record in the American League. This means that, while we may see another round of Casey Kotchmans and Johnny Damons and Jose Lopez’, this team will need to receive production from younger, considerably less-expensive talent. It is these players who should be receiving the at-bats in Hafner’s place, even if it has to be a 27-year-old Matt LaPorta one night after making one of the biggest bone-headed moves of the season.

Lou Marson, Jason Donald, and Cord Phelps. Thomas Neal and Juan Diaz. Heck, even Lars Anderson, the team’s big trade deadline move. One could make the argument that each one of these players would deserve the late-season at-bats more than Hafner. Sure, none of these guys are costing the team as much as Hafner is, but each and every one of them has a better chance of sharing the Cleveland clubhouse than the long-time designated hitter; heck, at least Marson, Donald, Phelps, Neal and Diaz can hit from the right side of the plate.

Hafner’s time in Cleveland most certainly had a lot of ups as well as its fair share of injury-related downs. “Pronkville” has since been renamed, his bobbleheads have been removed from the annual release. At this stage, as the schedule slowly (thankfully) finds itself with one fewer game left to play each time the sun rises, each at-bat given to Hafner does nothing but impede the potential, albeit marginal, progress of another player.

As Antonetti said, amidst a State of the Wahoo Union address just a few weeks ago, the next several weeks are to see exactly where on the map their current philosophy leaves them; what sort of turns need to be made to satisfy this multi-million-dollar navigation system where the final destination is (allegedly) a World Series appearance. Each time Hafner’s name finds itself in the batting order between Wednesday night’s loss — where he proceeded to go 0-for-3 at the plate — and the season finale, all Cleveland will hear is a course, head-scratching command of “recalculating.”

(Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer)

___________________________________________________

Footnotes:

  1. Shin-Soo Choo, Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana all have over 450 at-bats on the season []
  2. Insert “different eras” argument here []
  3. Payroll figures courtesy of ESPN []
  4. He has a $2.5 million buyout for the 2013 season []
  5. Roughly $6 million on this very evening []
  6. Chris Perez, I fear your days are numbered []

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Answer to headline: NOPE! Cya Pronk unfortunately it’s time to move on I just hope whoever is in charge finally reaches that conclusion as well.

  • boomhauertjs

    Love the Weekend at Bernie’s reference. Post-July, this whole team has been playing like Mr. Lomax.

  • mgbode

    and despite only playing in 61 games, the 6th best Indian in WAR this year:
    http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=all&stats=bat&lg=all&qual=0&type=8&season=2012&month=0&season1=&ind=0&team=5&players=0

    behind only Santana, Asdrubal, Kipnis, Brantley, and Choo

    I would really hope that the fans could give Hafner an appreciative send-off for his early great years and his continued fight to come back from injuries since then (and still contributing when healthy unlike Grady), but it does not appear that will be his fate.

    OPS+ above 120 in 7 of the last 8 seasons (and tied for team lead at 126 OPS+ this season with Choo).

    ridiculous OPS+ of 162, 168, 182 early-on that matches/beats anything we saw in a Tribe uniform ever.

  • Garry_Owen

    Rhetorical questions are fun.

  • Garry_Owen

    WAR for this team means less than nothing.

  • cmm13

    “sixth best Indian” …..this made me literally laugh out loud.

  • mgbode

    fair enough. the main argument in that is he is at least above replacement value rather than the flotsam that takes up most of the roster.

  • mgbode

    no, less than nothing is every hitters WAR other than those mentioned above (and Chisenhall and Marson).

  • Garry_Owen

    But what does that mean for this team? Take away all of the WAR for the hitters above Hafner, and we’re still in last place in the AL. Replace Hafner’s WAR for every hitter above him (and probably below him) and we’re still in last place. WAR is a statistic, but only a statistic. Where the rubber hits the road for the Tribe, it means nothing. Besides, I continue to maintain that WAR is simply a meaningless statistic for a bat-only DH like “Half”ner. Who is his replacement? Some nights, it’s Cabrera. Some nights, it’s Choo. Some nights, it’s Santana. Some nights, it’s Marson, or Donald, or . . . To say that Hafner has a .7 WAR over any possible combination of guys that might play in his place is misleading and inaccurate, particularly considering that those guys are also contributing to the team’s performance (and wins or losses) in the field.
    Man, I feel like we’ve had this conversation before . . . de to the ja to the vu.

  • http://twitter.com/bbo13 B-bo

    The jetsam on this roster strenuously objects to being ignored here.

  • mgbode

    yeah, we need new topics to debate.

  • Garry_Owen

    How about: “BQ or DA?”

    Go!

  • mgbode

    if it’s jetsam, wouldn’t that be the guys we already cut and therefore no longer on the roster? (i.e. Damon, etc.)

  • mgbode

    hmmm, well, Brady has a better shot at replacing Cassel than DA has of replacing Newton. so, I’d say Quinn has got the edge for now.

  • Garry_Owen

    Nice. (I honestly had no idea that Anderson was still playing football.)

  • mgbode

    he’s even ahead of a Notre Dame QB on the depth chart so he feels at home (Jimmy Clausen in this case)

  • http://twitter.com/bbo13 B-bo

    Fair point. I was thinking that’s what other teams have done, and we’ve simply claimed them for our own. Or maybe what we have constitutes lagan?

  • mgbode

    sure, but seeing what we got out of them, I would have wished them to be derelict

  • Adrian Drake

    Are they?

  • Garry_Owen

    Why not?

  • http://twitter.com/bbo13 B-bo

    Maritime humor eveyone! You’re welcome.

  • LaundroMat

    WAR, huh, what is it good for?

  • LaundroMat

    “Waning,” not “waining”

    And could someone come up with a term other than “albatross” for Hafner’s contract? This and referring to a good game pitched by Masterson as “masterful” are probably the most hackneyed phrases used in reference to players on the team.

  • mrmafaka

    I love Pronk, but his best years, months, weeks, days, games, at bats and swings are behind him, be gone and move on.

  • woofersus

    Who knows?