Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 48 – Travis Hafner
Bob Toth | On 14, Feb 2017
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Countdown to Opening Day – 48
He may not have been one of the best to wear 48 in Cleveland, but Travis Hafner was one of the better sluggers in the history of baseball to have the number on his back.
Sam McDowell may hold the honor of being the best pitcher and player to wear 48 in Indians history, but Hafner easily claims that title from the offensive side of the game. The Indians’ long-time designated hitter was part of one of the better thefts in club history, as the team picked him off from the Texas Rangers in a low-cost trade that gave the Tribe a dangerous power-hitting weapon in the middle of their lineup for the better part of his decade in a Cleveland uniform, serving as a suitable replacement for another left-handed slugger, Jim Thome, who left the club following the 2002 season.
Hafner’s path to the professional game took him through Sykeston High School in North Dakota and Cowley County Community College in Kansas before he was drafted by the Rangers with their 31st round pick in the 1996 draft. Signing nearly a year later, he hit the road to Florida and worked with the Gulf Coast League Rangers in Port Charlotte before blossoming into a polished slugger who brought with him doubles and home run power, a great eye at the plate, and an ability to hit for a high average.
In his second full season on the farm for the Rangers in 1999, he erupted for 30 doubles, 28 homers, 111 RBI, and a .292 batting average in a second year with Savannah in the South Atlantic League. The numbers translated to High-A the following year, as he hit .346 with a .447 on-base percentage, 34 doubles, 22 homers, and 109 RBI. In just 88 games in 2001 with Double-A Tulsa, he had 25 doubles and 20 homers with a .282 average and .396 OBP, and he continued to hit the cover off of the ball for Triple-A Oklahoma in 2002, hitting .342 with a .463 OBP with another 22 doubles and 21 homers.
He got the call to the Majors and debuted in early August of that season. Through 23 games, he hit .242 with a homer and four doubles. The Rangers, however, had a logjam of talent at the corner infield positions, including veterans Rafael Palmeiro and former Indian Herbert Perry, with young prospects Mark Teixeira, Hank Blalock, and Mike Lamb knocking on the door for regular playing time. It made Hafner expendable, and he was dealt with reliever Aaron Myette to the Tribe for starting pitcher Ryan Drese and catcher Einar Diaz.
Drese, Cleveland’s fifth round pick in 1998, had just finished his second season with the Indians, going 10-9 with a 6.55 ERA and a 1.73 WHIP in 26 starts with one complete game. He would remain with the Rangers for parts of the next three years, winning 14 games in 2004 while making 33 starts and hitting the 200-inning mark, but he was claimed off of waivers in 2005 by the Washington Nationals, hanging around the Majors through 2006 and in the minors into late May of 2011.
Diaz spent one season behind the plate for the Rangers, hitting .257 over 101 games, before time with Montreal, St. Louis, and Los Angeles over the following three years.
Hafner started slow with the Tribe in 2003, hitting .206 with four homers before he was optioned to Triple-A Buffalo. Upon his return in mid-July, he hit .278 with a .350 OBP in his final 61 games to finish the year with 14 homers and 40 RBI in 91 games. By the next season, he was a regular in the middle of the Indians lineup.
In 2004, he finished the year second in the league in OPS, third in OBP, fourth in slugging, and tenth in batting average while hitting 41 doubles, 28 homers, and driving in 109. The following season, he posted nearly identical numbers while ranking second again in OPS, third in slugging and OBP, and ninth in batting average while hitting 42 doubles, 33 homers, and 108 RBI, despite missing several weeks after getting hit in the face by a pitch from Chicago’s Mark Buehrle.
He had a career year in 2006, leading the league in slugging and OPS with the AL’s second-highest OBP and third-highest home run total (42) despite missing the final month of the season with a broken hand. His doubles and home run production essentially flip-flopped spots, with the damage coming over just 129 games.
Hafner’s numbers declined in 2007, despite appearing in a career-high 152 games for the Indians. Contract talks concluded in July as he agreed to terms on a four-year, $57 million extension to join several other key members of the club on long-term deals, including Jake Westbrook, Grady Sizemore, and Victor Martinez. In a “down year”, Hafner had 25 doubles, 24 homers, and drove in 100 runs while topping the 100-walk mark for the second straight season, but his batting average fell off 42 points and his OBP dropped 54 points. The Indians pushed deep into the postseason, and with the exception of a pair of homers and a walk-off single to cap the “Bug Game” in the ALDS against the New York Yankees, the man they called “Pronk” was held to a .186 average over eleven playoff games as the Indians were eliminated in seven games in the ALCS against Boston.
Pronk’s career was never the same after the 2007 season as injuries piled up for the big slugger. He played in just 57 games in 2008, hitting .197 with a .305 OBP while dealing with right shoulder issues. He made it into 94 games in 2009, showing signs of life with 19 doubles, 16 homers, and 49 RBI to go with a .272 average, but he struggled to stay in the lineup with persistent shoulder issues. He topped the century mark in games for the final time in his career in 2010, appearing in 118 games while hitting 29 doubles, 13 homers, and 50 RBI to go with a .278 average.
His production and ability to stay in the lineup remained concerns as he hit .280 in 94 games in 2011 with 16 doubles, 13 homers, and 57 RBI. Time was lost with right oblique and right foot injuries. The numbers declined further in his final season with the Indians in 2012 as he hit .228 with 12 homers and 34 RBI in 66 games. It came at a cost to the club of $13 million and at the expense of Hafner’s knee, which kept him sidelined for a stretch after undergoing arthroscopic surgery to address fraying in his meniscus, and his lower back.
The final option year of his contract was declined by the Indians and he signed prior to spring training in 2013 with the New York Yankees, playing one season in the Bronx for $2 million. He made it into the lineup 82 times, hitting 12 homers with 37 RBI, but saw his batting average plummet to .202 in his final season in the Show.
Hafner ended his career with the eighth-highest homer total (200) and slugging percentage (.509), the second-most intentional walks (78), and the most hit by pitches (85) in Indians history. His cycle in Minnesota against the Twins in 2003 (the first by an Indians player since Andre Thornton in 1978) remained the last by a Clevelander until Rajai Davis joined the club in July of this past season. Hafner’s six grand slams in 2006 remain tied for the most in a single season in Major League history (joining Don Mattingly‘s total from 1987).
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images