Passing on Pronk and Thome
By Bob Toth
The Cleveland Indians have addressed nearly all of their off-season roster concerns and have managed to do so quickly and, for the most part, quietly. The roster itself has a brand new face.
The starting rotation was bolstered for the present, with the signing of Brett Myers, and the future, with the trade for Trevor Bauer. A lack of offensive production from the corner infielders has been filled with free agent signee Mark Reynolds. Holes in the outfield have been plugged by Nick Swisher and Drew Stubbs. Acquiring Mike Aviles has given the bench a versatile veteran presence.
Despite all of the roster moves, the designated hitter position is noticeably void. While the front office seems open to considering adding a left-handed bat with some pop to balance out the lineup, free agent retreads like Jim Thome and Travis Hafner are not the answer.
Thome found himself back in the postseason in 2012 while a member of the Baltimore Orioles. After ending his second tour of duty in Cleveland in 2011, he signed a one-year free agent contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. Back in the National League, his role was reserved primarily to that of a pinch hitter. In the Phillies’ first 78 games, he appeared in just 30 while batting .242 with five home runs and 15 runs batted in.
Thome did make four starts at first base for the Phillies and had two hits and three walks in 13 plate appearances. Upon returning from an injury in late April, he did not appear again in the field. He was batting just .100 on June 7th prior to a three-game interleague series against the Orioles, when he went 6-for-13 with two doubles and a home run while serving as the designated hitter for the Phillies in Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Baltimore, in need of a jolt, acquired the veteran leadership and presence of Thome from the Phillies in exchange for a pair of minor leaguers on June 30th. The Orioles played 84 games after acquiring him; he appeared in 28. He started 26 of those games as the team’s designated hitter and batted .257 back in the American League, adding three more home runs and another ten RBI to his season total.
He appeared in just 58 games in total last season, down from 93 the previous year, his lowest since an injury-plagued 2005 season when he played in just 59 games for the Phillies in his last year in Philadelphia.
Thome is 42 years old. He will turn 43 late in the 2013 season. He has played in parts of 22 seasons throughout his outstanding career and seems reluctant to hang up his spikes, believing that he is still in good enough shape to participate in another season.
One would certainly have to question how much production he could provide a team if given regular playing time. Having him take up a roster spot on the bench, knowing he would be limited to just the DH position or pinch hitting, is a tough gamble for any team when roster spots are at a premium.
Hafner has been an ever-present reminder of what could have been. After four consecutive seasons with 24 or more home runs, his numbers plummeted and he began to deal with injury after injury. Over the last five seasons, Pronk has appeared in just over half of the team’s games. After his five home run performance in 57 games in 2008, he has only reached the mid-teens with the longball, well short of half of the production he saw during his stellar four-year run from 2004 to 2007.
The fact that Hafner remains a free agent at the present should be indicative of the market on the one-time star. Even when he has been able to stay healthy for stretches, he is just a shell of the player that he once was. His percentage of home runs per plate appearance has fallen in the last five years compared to the previous five great years he had. His percentages of walks and extra base hits per plate appearance have each dropped nearly three percentage points as well. He averaged nearly nine more at bats per home run in the last five years, when compared to the previous five.
Hafner turns 36 two months into the season. He has not stayed healthy and in the lineup away from the disabled list since 2007. That season, his offensive production was in decline already, as he hit 18 fewer home runs and drove in 17 fewer runs despite playing in 23 more games and having 97 more plate appearances than the previous year. His batting average was 42 points lighter. His slugging percentage, just one year after leading the league in the category, dropped from .659 to .451.
Looking even deeper, Hafner’s splits last season fail to overwhelm. He batted .241 against right-handed pitching as opposed to .197 versus left-handers. He averaged nearly two strikeouts for every walk against lefties and drew just eight walks on the year. Extra base hits accounted for 7.3% of his plate appearances versus righties and 8.3% against lefties. He batted .161 with runners on base and .128 with runners in scoring position. He batted nearly one hundred points higher on the road (.286) than he did at home (.188). His on-base percentages (.404 on the road versus .305 at home) provided similarly disappointing results for those cheering on the home team at Progressive Field.
If Hafner was close to the player he once was, there would not be nearly as much debate. The fact is that he is not even in the same ballpark. Yet despite five years of declining skills and limited playing time due to a plethora of injuries, some fans hold out hope for a return of Pronk in their usual fascination with the players of yesteryear.
The desire of some fans for a full-time DH in Cleveland is not surprising.
Hafner filled the role for parts of ten years between 2003 and last season and has been the exclusive DH in each of those years except his first year with the Indians in 2003, when he split time nearly evenly between first base and DH. Ellis Burks preceded him in the position, sharing time with him in 2003 and playing the position nearly exclusively in 2001 and 2002.
Thome was part of a group of several players who shared the role during the Indians’ glory years of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Thome, Manny Ramirez, Russell Branyan, and David Justice all spent 20 games or more in the position in 2000. Thome, Justice, Harold Baines, and Richie Sexson split the lions’ share of the load in 1999. Justice spent 116 games at DH in 1998 and split time with Julio Franco and Kevin Seitzer in the spot in 1997. Eddie Murray held down the role from 1994 through 1996.
For Indians fans and the Cleveland organization, having an undetermined DH spot is unfamiliar territory.
When looking at external options for a designated hitter, few worthwhile options remain.
Does anyone want Carlos Lee? “El Caballo” has logged 14 seasons in the big leagues with a career .285 batting average to his credit and 358 home runs. The right-handed hitter has seen a steady decrease in nearly every offensive category over each of the last six years after joining the Houston Astros as a free agent in November of 2006 on a six-year, $100 million contract. After a 32 homer, 119 RBI season in 2007, his power and run production has dropped, his ability to get on base has lessened, and he has fewer extra base hits. He did show some improvements in the percentages of plate appearances that he walks or strikes out last year while playing between Houston and Miami.
He spent last season as a full-time first baseman after splitting the previous season between left field and first and had a .995 fielding percentage. He was above league average in his range factor at first base. Lee turns 37 midseason.
Jason Giambi is available. At 43, he will enter his 19th season in the major leagues, if he plays. He is coming off of a .225 season with one home run playing in Coors Field for the Rockies. He started just 12 games at first base for Colorado.
The free agent list of options is bare. Thome and Hafner may be the best of that bunch, but that is not necessarily something to brag about.
One of the biggest concerns in attempting to plug in a regular DH into the lineup, similar to what the team has done with regularity over the last two decades, is that it has the potential to stunt the growth of so many younger players on the Indians’ roster who would benefit from regular playing time created by a rotating DH position shared amongst several players on the roster. Outside of the handful of veteran ball players acquired this offseason, the Indians’ core roster was filled with younger players approaching the primes of their careers. Regular playing time may be blocked for several other young players on the roster due to the presence of some of the team’s younger fan favorites. The addition of another DH bat would limit their playing time and would leave the team with a question mark about their potential to positively impact the ball club on an every day basis.
Plugging Carlos Santana in at first base or DH would allow Lou Marson or even Yan Gomes to see additional playing time, while resting the legs of the team’s starting catcher and keeping his potent bat in the lineup. While the team seems to be pushing for Santana to carry the bulk of the load behind the plate this season, his soon-to-be 27-year-old legs (come April 8th) have yet to catch more than 100 games in any major league season and maxed out at 106 in the minor leagues in 2008 when the Indians acquired him from the Los Angeles Dodgers. He started 27 games at DH and 20 more at first base last season in addition to his 95 starts behind the plate.
Marson showed last summer that given regular and consistent playing time that he was capable of supplying adequate offensive numbers. He did not hit for power, but he was reaching base at a clip far better than he had filling in sporadically for Santana early on in the season.
Gomes had arguably his best season in the Blue Jays’ organization last season, batting .328 for Triple-A Las Vegas. The 25-year-old righty was rewarded with playing time with the major league club, where he batted .204 with four home runs and 13 RBI in 43 games. He made 13 starts at first base, six at third base, five behind the plate, and two more as the designated hitter.
The presence of Aviles could allow the team to keep Asdrubal Cabrera, Jason Kipnis, and Lonnie Chisenhall in the lineup offensively as the designated hitter while resting them a day from regular duty in the field. Aviles could even see some platoon possibility with Chisenhall if he struggles at all with left-handed pitching, as he has in his career thus far (.271 versus righties; .227 versus lefties). Chisenhall has averaged a strikeout in 25% of his plate appearances against left-handers while sporting a better 18% against right-handers.
Aviles, a right-handed hitter, hit .250 with 13 home runs and 60 RBI in 136 games as the starting shortstop in Boston last season. He batted .286 last season against left-handed pitching.
Several other players, including the young switch-hitting first baseman Mike McDade (from Toronto) and left-handed hitting first baseman Chris McGuiness (a Rule 5 pick from Texas) would miss out on an opportunity in Cleveland and could be lost from the roster altogether if players like Thome or Hafner came in and occupied a roster spot to essentially be just a hitter. Both have shown some pop in the minor leagues and could supply something that was largely lacking from the lineup last season if given an opportunity at the major league level.
While having an additional big bat in the lineup would be a nice addition, it would come with a cost exceeding just the salary it would take to bring one of the available remaining free agents to town. Is it worth it to bring back a Thome or Hafner or other similar player and not see what McDade, McGuiness, Gomes, Marson, Aviles, or others could do with consistent playing time instead?
We have seen the best years of Hafner and Thome years ago. It is time to let them go and usher in a new generation of young ball players to the tradition of Cleveland Indians baseball. Hopefully, under Terry Francona’s tutelage and leadership, they can become part of a return to a winning one.
Photos: Jason Miller / Getty Images