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2012 Player Preview: Travis Hafner

As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who is likely to be on the Cleveland Indians’ Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we turn our attention to the Tribe’s longtime designated hitter: Travis Hafner.

Background: The Texas Rangers took Hafner, now 34, out of high school with their 31st-round pick in the 1996 MLB amateur draft—it took six years for him to get his first cup of coffee in the big leagues. He came to Cleveland along with Aaron Myette after the 2002 season in the trade that sent Einar Diaz and Ryan Drese to Texas. He made his first and only appearance on Baseball America‘s Top 100 Prospects list in 2003, when he was almost 26. Hafner was one of the most feared hitters in the game from 2004-6 before he entered a sudden decline in 2007.

Last year: Hafner struggled to stay on the field in 2011, appearing in just 94 games, but hit well out of the DH spot, sporting a .280/.361/.449 triple-slash (123 wRC+) with 13 home runs, 57 RBI, and 41 runs scored—essentially the same level at which he’s played since 2009. Baseball-Reference, Baseball Prospectus, and FanGraphs all estimated Pronk’s production to be between 1.3 and 1.6 wins above replacement despite his missing more than two months’ worth of games.

Key factor: Health. We know Hafner isn’t a 162-game player, or even a 130-game player. He hasn’t made more than 108 starts since 2007, and he’s averaged less than 84 starts over the last four years. Barring another major health problem it’s probably safe to say he’ll make somewhere between 70 and 100 starts in 2012, but 30 games is a pretty big swing—especially considering there’s no one else on the team who could be counted on replace Pronk’s bat in the lineup.

2012 projections: Courtesy of FanGraphs. (*—estimated with the Simple WAR Calculator)

Take away Bill James’ projections and there’s a pretty clear consensus on how Hafner will play in 2012: noticeably worse than in he has since 2009. Pronk’s OPS has floated between .811 and .826 for the last three years, but RotoChamp, Steamer, Marcel, and ZIPS all see him slipping to between .769 and .775. He’s not getting any younger and he might be in for a tad of BABIP regression (he’s had a .332 hit rate two years in a row, but that’s not terribly out of line with his .318 career BABIP), but I’m not sure how all four systems landed on the same, noticeably worse projection. The only real difference between them is playing time—there’s a full 150-plate appearance gap between Steamer’s predictions and ZIPS’.

By contrast, James’ numbers look overly optimistic. James foresees Hafner improving on his 2011 numbers and (relative to the current run environment) hitting better than he has since 2006. Anything’s possible, I suppose, but that doesn’t seem very likely.

Best-case scenario: Hafner hits just as well as he did last year, with the added bonus of bringing his walk rate back up over 10 percent. He stays (relatively) healthy and manages to appear in 120 games. He’s a solid bat in the middle of the order and he comes through with his usual share of late-game heroics.

Worst-case scenario: Hafner’s BABIP and age catch up with him and he struggles to reach even his non-James projections. That is, when he’s on the field—his usual rash of injuries is even worse than his norm and he misses more than half the season. The Indians regret not trading him for A.J. Burnett.

Most likely scenario: Pronk slips a little bit—maybe halfway between his 2011 numbers and his ZIPS projections—but it’s not the dramatic decline that most of the projection systems predict. He makes about 90 starts and proves yet again to be one of the Tribe’s best hitters, even if he’s not worth his contract.

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