Hafner Still an Option, But Not For $13 Million
Craig Gifford | On 22, Oct 2012
After a disappointing 2012 Cleveland Indians season the organization is at a crossroads to decide how to progress with the organization, not just for the 2013 season but several seasons to come. Decisions involve ownerships, the front office, managerial and coaching decisions and the players. For the month of October, we’ll look at how the Indians ended up in their current predicament, but most importantly, Where Do the Indians Go From Here. Today we analyze one of the three players who have team options for next season. The Indians must decide to pick up their options within three days of the end of the World Series.
For his first five seasons in a Cleveland Indians uniform, Travis Hafner represented everything good about small market baseball. A shrewd trade of a veteran, bringing in an unknown rookie who produces far above anyone’s expectations is something all teams on a budget hope to have happen any time.
The Indians had that dream scenario pop up in December 2002. At the time, it was an unheralded trade with the Texas Rangers. The Tribe unloaded a pair of young players, with little upside in catcher Einar Diaz and starting pitcher Ryan Drese. In return, Cleveland received the equally unknown Hafner.
Hafner had played 23 games for the Rangers in 2002, but did not show any of the power that was about to make him a hero on the shores of Lake Erie. The player known as Pronk, showed his hit muscle over 92 games with the Indians in 2003, blasting 14 home runs in that stretch. Adding 40 RBI and a .254 batting average helped Cleveland management make Hafner the team’s regular designated hitter and part-time first baseman in 2004.
With 28, 33, 42 and 24 long balls over the next four seasons, 100 runs driven in each year and a batting average over .300 from 2004-2006, Pronk was clearly one of the team’s core players. Billed as one of the top DH’s in the game over that stretch, Hafner never made more than $5 million in a season through 2007.
At the start of the 2007 campaign, his worst to that point in Cleveland, the Tribe extended its power hitter’s contract with a lucrative deal, running through 2012, with a 2013 team option. Even in a down year - 24 homers, 100 RBI and .266 batting average in ’07 – the deal still seemed good for a guy who was the heart of the batting order. He showed so much power for four-plus years that Cleveland named right field’s second deck in his honor – it was dubbed, “Pronkville”.
A year after the new contract was signed is when things started to change for Hafner. Injuries, many to his shoulders, started to pile up and began to zap him of his powerful swing. Following 2007, Hafner played in more than 100 games just once and topped out at 16 home runs in 2009. His 57 RBI in 2011 have been the most since what has turned out to be his last Pronk-like season. The batting average has not seen .300 since 2006. Hafner has not been able to take the field since 2007.
The turn from middle-of-the-order monster to injury-riddled former superstar seemed to happen over night. Even in that down 2007, the numbers seemed good enough to suggest the power was still there and Hafner would remain a force through the life his megadeal. Obviously it was not meant to be. Hafner has been anything but a force. He has shown glimpses in recent years, including a nice bomb in his second-to-last game of this past season. However, Pronk has not been able to remain in the lineup long enough to be very effective.
Now, Indians brass is at the point where it has to decide whether or not to keep the once beloved player, who has gone from representing everything right with small market baseball to everything wrong with it. A team on a budget can not be paying $11 million-plus for a guy who rarely plays half the games in a year. That would be an albatross for a money-rich team.
The $13 million option on Hafner should be the easiest decision the Tribe makes this offseason. Hafner is clearly not worth that kind of dough anymore and will not be retained at that price.
It is amazing to think that a guy who has been in one uniform for a decade and produced the way Hafner did at one point could have fallen so far out of favor with a team and fanbase that once worshiped him. However, that is what has happened. For five seasons, Hafner collected megamillions, while collecting few homers and RBI. Pronkville no longer exists, as the man has rarely powered up enough to get the baseball to that part of Progressive Field in recent seasons.
No, the decision to pick up the option on Hafner is not hard at all. What may be a hard thought for the Indians is whether to keep Hafner, at all. It would not be shocking to see the Tribe resign him at a much more club-friendly cost. The buyout to decline Hafner’s 2013 option is $2.75 million. Let’s say Pronk hits the market and can not find anyone to pay the part-time player very much. Hafner still has more value to the Indians due to his history to the team, so the $3 million price range for a season could work. The Tribe is going to pay him $2.75 million regardless, they might pay him to continue to come to Progressive Field, rather than pay him to play for another team.
There are still memories in this town of a big, hulking presence reaching home run numbers few in Cleveland ever have. If he is going to accept a huge pay cut with an agreement of three or four games a week, why not in the city he has called home for so long? Hafner is one of the only members on the Indians that has made Cleveland his home for 12 months a year.
Something like that could work. The Indians could still use a veteran presence and Hafner provides that. Playing sparing, Hafner could stay healthier than he has in years. It would be better for all involved to see him play all year, several times a week rather than play in bulks of time and then miss bulks of time.
A club-friendly contract that would see Hafner earn what he produces could bring Pronk full-circle. He could end his career in Cleveland the way he began it – a bargain for a small-market team that needs to find bargains around every corner.
If this is it for Hafner in Cleveland, he will go down as one of the more polarizing players in team history. A guy who was loved and then fell out favor for no reason in his control. Hafner has seen his star fade due to injuries. He has not been a head-case or someone who got in trouble with the law. Injuries hit him, as they did other stars. Hafner likely even knows his time as a superstar is long gone. He won’t demand much money this offseason. The Indians should not offer him much, but should be open to bringing him back for one swan song that won’t hinder the team making other moves.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images