The Indians and Tigers both have issues at designated hitter. Both cases are quite unique and each team has taken different actions towards rectifying the situation. Will these solutions prove to be fruitful or will they be complete duds? I have a feeling that the designated hitter position will be an area of strength for one team and an Achilles heel for the other. Allow me to explain.
The Tigers thought they were set at designated hitter for the foreseeable future when they signed Victor Martinez before the 2011 season. Martinez is a professional hitter who hits the ball well to all fields, provides a decent amount of power, and has proven to be clutch in run-scoring situations. It also helps that he’s a switch hitter, making matchups a nightmare on opposing managers.
In his first year in Detroit, Martinez hit .330 with 40 doubles, 12 home runs, and 103 RBI. That performance was good for an fWAR of 2.9 with an offensive win probability added of 3.3 (tied for a career high). Needless to say, he was the perfect complement to Miguel Cabrera in the Tigers lineup.
With all of that momentum from a strong 2011, Detroit expected big things from Martinez heading into 2012. And then it happened. In January, Martinez suffered a knee injury during a routine offseason workout. The end result? A torn ACL, reconstructive surgery, and then ultimately a second procedure to repair further damage to his knee. That second knee surgery turned out to be microfracture surgery to repair cartilage in the knee. Game over.
With no legitimate fill-in to replace Martinez on the existing roster, the Tigers decided to avoid the bottom of the barrel bargains at Filene’s Basement and in the end did quite alright for themselves. They signed Prince Fielder—the same Prince Fielder who hit .299 with 38 home runs and 120 RBI in 2011. Game over, thanks for playing.
Fielder is not slated to be the Tigers’ everyday designated hitter, which allows Detroit to move Delmon Young there on a full-time basis. With the move comes some added flexibility: the Tigers can now rotate their three most potent bats (Fielder, Young, and Cabrera) between the field and designated hitter. It allows them to essentially provide each player a day off without actually taking any of their bats out of the lineup.
This flexibility that will prove to be a strength for the Tigers. Being able to make adjustments on the fly and being ready for any and all situations that can arise during a season is always a positive. By not having to rely solely on one bat within the lineup and a single one-dimensional player at designated hitter, the Tigers have the ability to adapt.
And that, folks is what separates the Detroit Tigers from the Cleveland Indians when it comes to the designated hitter. Whereas the Tigers can rotate any of three players in and out of that spot in the lineup, the Indians are limited to one player who can’t do anything but hit at this point in his career: Travis Hafner.
At the time, the $57 million contract extension the Indians gave Hafner in 2007 seemed like a sound investment. He had established himself as one of the most consistently reliable middle-of-the-order hitters in baseball. He was regularly hitting in the .300 range while accumulating home run and RBI totals in the 30’s and 100’s respectively. Not to mention he had a three year stretch from 2004-6 in which he posted an average annual fWAR of 5.4. He was also a fan favorite and had the Indians had allowed him to walk in free agency the fans would have rioted with pitch forks and torches.
It made sense until the injuries started coming. And then they didn’t stop. Once a mysterious shoulder injury robbed him of his power and confidence, you could no longer ignore the fact that he was a severely limited one-dimensional player with a contract that a small-market team couldn’t afford. The money the Indians locked up in Hafner could have used to retain some combination of CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, and Victor Martinez.
So now the Indians will go to battle in 2012 the same way they’ve gone to battle for the past four years: hoping and praying Travis Hafner can stay healthy and regain his previous form. It seems unlikely, but at this point what other choice do they have? Hafner is virtually untradeable and given the amount of money owed to him they can’t just sit him on the bench. The Indians need some sort of return on that investment.
Unfortunately, the notion that Travis Hafner will find himself and morph back into the player we all fell in love with six or seven seasons ago is a pipe dream. That player is gone. At this point in time, the best we can expect from Hafner is what he’s done the past two seasons: since 2010, he’s hit .279/.369/.449 with 26 homers and 107 RBI in 212 games. With full and with a little bit of luck Hafner could be poised for one more great year, but I just don’t see it.
The bottom line is that we all want Travis Hafner to have a good year in 2012. We want him to be part of the solution, not the problem. The fact of the matter is he’s more of the problem than we like to believe. Other than the occasional late game heroics and a few tape-measure home runs, what does Travis Hafner bring to the table? Not enough. And what happens if and when Hafner gets hurt? Who steps in and takes his spot? Shelley Duncan? There’s no real solution besides the status quo.
The Verdict: I have no choice but to give the overwhelming advantage to the Tigers at designated hitter. The addition of Fielder to go along with Young and Cabrera creates what could be a very formidable and flexible trio in the middle of their lineup, while Hafner is past his prime and the Indians have no real solution for the position beyond him.