On October 31, the Indians declined to exercise their $13 million club option on Travis Hafner, choosing instead to buy out his contract for $2.75 million. This was, of course, expected. Hafner has long since ceased to be the visibly heftier 2006 version of himself who sent 42 baseballs to “Souvenir City” (as Matt Underwood would say), including a major league record-tying six grand slams. It was undoubtedly the Indians’ confidence in their designated hitter’s potential to build upon this campaign that led to his four-year, $57 million extension at the All-Star break in 2007.
But Hafner never again produced alongside the game’s elite sluggers. Rather, over the next six seasons a nagging shoulder issue and a slew of other ailments resulted in frequent and often prolonged trips to the disabled list. He played in 152 games in a solid but unspectacular 2007 season, but has averaged just 86 games and 12 home runs per year since.
Hafner’s precipitous decline paralleled Grady Sizemore’s chronic knee troubles, and together they came to personify all that’s gone wrong for the team since it was just one win from the World Series in 2007. Their respective extensions were celebrated when they were announced, but a team with limited resources can ill afford to miss when it signs players. Still, last November, shortly after declining their $9 million option on fan-favorite Sizemore, the Indians put a few more eggs in that basket by re-signing him to an incentive-laden, one-year, $5 million deal. They bet that 2012 would be the year he’d finally stay healthy and return to form. But they lost this bet as well, as injuries kept Sizemore sidelined for the entire season.
Now, after a disastrous 2012 in which the Tribe lost 94 games (including 24 in August, the worst month in franchise history), it is understandable that the team appears to be permanently cutting ties with Hafner and Sizemore. Apparently, and fittingly, their “out with the old, in with the new” mentality has boiled over and inspired a thread-the-needle approach this offseason—one in which they are exploring trade alternatives for various team leaders, all while shunning journeyman, super-utility, free agent stopgaps (the “Adam Everett” type they have historically coveted) in favor of more accomplished and more expensive options. Where young, cost-controlled players are available for proven talent, the Indians are listening. They’re concerned about trying to win later, but don’t want to lose sight of what they can do right now. They want to have their cake and to eat it, too.
It’s certainly an unusual approach, and one that many baseball commentators consider illogical. This offseason, the Indians brought Terry Francona aboard as the new skipper. They signed Mark Reynolds to play first. They sent Shin-Soo Choo, et al. packing in a trade that yielded Trevor Bauer, Drew Stubbs, Matt Albers, and Bryan Shaw. They signed Nick Swisher to replace Choo in right. At various points in the offseason, the Indians were known to be entertaining offers for Asdrubal Cabrera, Justin Masterson, and Chris Perez, but in light of their moves thus far, the most logical next step would be a trade that nets another starting pitcher. The Indians have plenty of rotation depth, but few options that don’t come with significant question marks. Perhaps Cabrera, because of his high value and the acquisition of Mike Aviles from Toronto, is the most likely trade candidate.
But the team clearly has another hole to fill in the lineup. When Swisher visited Cleveland the week before he signed, the Indians projected on the stadium scoreboard a picture of him in an Indians uniform, next to a lineup card that featured him batting in the cleanup spot. But the fact that the Indians placed a “TBD” next to the designated hitter spot, instead of just creating an optimal lineup from its current roster, suggests they are not satisfied with their internal options—which include Yan Gomes, Cord Phelps, Tim Fedroff, and Thomas Neal.
With a budget that is (likely) close to full and any forthcoming trade (likely) aimed at solidifying the rotation, the Indians may be forced to address this hole through a value signing. While two months ago I would have been hard pressed to imagine a situation in which it would make sense to bring Travis Hafner back, it seems this offseason may have presented that rare scenario in which re-signing him would be justified. Many of the reasons it made sense to go separate ways are no longer an issue—or at least are trumped by the value Hafner can potentially bring to the team for the right price.
For most of Hafner’s decade with the Indians, the fact that the right field mezzanine at Progressive Field was known as “Pronkville,” and was located a country mile from home plate, served as a constant reminder of how he’d fallen short of the Indians’ high expectations. (Though on the right night with the right swing you’d better believe he can still hit one there. Just ask the Royals’ Luis Mendoza.) But the Indians would no longer call upon Hafner to be a significant power threat. The Hafner they’d be committing to would be the one that has managed to retain a respectable .361 on base percentage over the past four seasons, even as injuries have taken a toll on his slugging percentage. Hafner still has a good eye at the plate, and he’s developed into a situational hitter capable of beating the infield shift by slapping the ball to left instead of trying to muscle it through. But Hafner is also a leader in the clubhouse (and the community); he’s a player whose statistics don’t tell the full story.
During the 2012 season, the Indians were hindered by a lineup that was exploitably left-handed. The right-handed presence came primarily from Asdrubal Cabrera, Carlos Santana, and (when he played) Shelley Duncan. The lack of righty options made it difficult for the Indians to counter situational pitching matchups. They underestimated the effect this would have on the team. But the additions of Swisher, Reynolds, and Stubbs should solve the imbalance, and make retaining the left-handed hitting Hafner less of a concern. While the Indians lose some flexibility by taking on a player that can’t play in the field, they would not have to play Hafner every day—Francona can rotate players through as he sees fit. Hafner is significantly better against righties, and could likely benefit from taking on more of a part-time role, anyway.
To the extent that fan perceptions matter (which they do), if the Indians struggle offensively in 2013, their busy offseason would likely prevent critics from accusing them of trying to solve an old problem with a solution that has already proven ineffective. Of course, for there to be a fit the price would have to be right. But as Hafner doesn’t seem to have many suitors (Houston came to mind for many, but they recently signed Carlos Pena), perhaps he can be had for cheap. It could well be that the most logical name to pencil in at designated hitter is a familiar one.