Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Elephant in the Room

As Travis Hafner makes his return to the Indians’ lineup tonight and with most eyes already cast in the direction of 2009, is it time to identify that huge Half Project/Half Elephant that’s been taking up so much space in everyone’s head? Can the issue of Travis Hafner’s health and his importance to the Indians’ 2009 campaign FINALLY be broached?

On the shelf since May 30th (and allegedly playing at a capacity far below 100% before then), Hafner returns the parent club tonight after a few brief stops in the minors to rehab his mysterious shoulder injury. While the news is welcome, it is accompanied by the unsettling news that, after over 3 months of rest and attempts to rebuild strength in his shoulder, he is still unable to play everyday and will probably play every other game as he attempts to continue to return his shoulder to 100%...if that is even a possibility anymore.

Does anyone find this more than a little disconcerting?
He’s still just the DH, right?
He’s not playing the field, right…just swinging the bat?

And after (oh, I don’t know…I’ll just throw a range of numbers out there) 50 to 75 swings on a given night, his shoulder is in SUCH bad shape that he has to rest it for a full day afterwards? Can we ever find out what in the world is going on in that right shoulder – that surgery was not recommended but after months of inactivity and strength-building – that he’s still unable to swing a bat (which is his only real physical job requirement) for two consecutive days?

Allegedly, he’s come a long way back from his placement on the DL in terms of strength and mobility, but if it’s taken him this long and his shoulder is still this weak, what are we to expect for 2009?

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the odds are pretty good that “this guy” may have made his final appearance in a Tribe uniform…you may remember him fondly as Pronk:
2004 season
.311 BA / .410 OBP / .583 SLG / .993 OPS with 28 HR and 109 RBI over 140 games

2005 season
.305 BA / .408 OBP / .595 SLG / 1.003 OPS with 33 HR and 108 RBI over 137 games

2006 season
.308 BA / .439 OBP / .659 SLG / 1.098 OPS with 42 HR and 117 RBI over 129 games

Look at those numbers and don’t you just hear Archie and Edith singing “Those Were the Days”?
Even Pronk’s “worst” season among those three would put him 2nd in the AL in OPS this year, behind only The Game Boy. Did we appreciate that while it was happening or did we simply assume that this ridiculously consistent production would continue for a few more seasons…at least? I tend to think the latter, which brings us to where we stand today, wondering where Pronk has gone and when the cliff that he seems to have fallen off appeared before him. To that end, let’s go to the numbers:
2007 season
.266 BA / .385 OBP / .451 SLG / .836 OPS with 24 HR and 100 RBI over 152 games

Meh, right?
No, here’s the problem:
2007 from Opening Day to May 2nd
.337 BA / .487 OBP / .581 SLG / 1.068 OPS with 6 HR and 19 RBI over 24 games
May 3rd until End of Season
.253 BA / .364 OBP / .427 SLG / .791 OPS with 18 HR and 81 RBI over 128 games

Nearly ¼ of his HR and RBI totals came from about 15% of the games he played last year as his OPS just spiraled downward as the year wore on. But it didn’t stop there as the fears of some were drastically realized this year:
2008 season
.217 BA / .326 OBP / .350 SLG / .676 OPS with 4 HR and 22 RBI in 46 games

Now how much of this had to do with the “Incredible Shrinking Shoulder” and distractions that may have stemmed from his father’s battle with cancer is up in the air as we’re obviously not between Hafner’s ears and his medical records seem to be on par with the original copy of The Colonel’s recipe of 11 herbs and spices. But the drop-off is significant and very disturbing – particularly for a team that owes him $49M in guaranteed money over the next 4 years.

And herein lies the main problem – the Indians have been built to rely on production from their DH, with the idea that Hafner would be providing that middle-of-the-order pop. The DH “position” in 2008 for the Indians has posted a .735 OPS, which puts them 10th among the 14 teams in the AL. This after getting the 4th most production from their DH “position” last year (.870 OPS), the most production from the “position” in 2006 (1.016 OPS), and the second most in 2005 (.954 OPS) and 2004 (.953 OPS).

If Hafner is not able to rediscover his inner Pronk or is unable to come anywhere close to it, the Indians could very seriously be looking at a Mike Sweeney-KC Royals situation from a few years ago going forward. By that I mean there would too much money tied up (in a limited payroll) on a player that either is unable to stay healthy enough to contribute or that the player is enough of an albatross on the team’s finances that he is trotted out in the lineup, lack of production be damned – just as Mike Sweeney’s 5-year, $55M deal from 2003 to 2007 crippled the Royals’ payroll as he contributed all of 74 HR over those 5 years, during which he averaged 94 games per season. And this when Sweeney was taking up as much as 29.8% of the team’s total payroll (as he did in 2005) and an average of 22.9% of the paychecks cashed by Royals’ players over those 5 years!

Even if Hafner is able to stay healthy and relatively productive for 2/3 of the game, the amount of money that he’s owed by the organization turns him from a Half Project/Half Donkey into a Half Project/Half Albatross…call him Prolbatross. Non-production from such a giant percentage of the perceived payroll going forward then handcuffs the Indians from the standpoint that they’re either forced to keep an unproductive Hafner in the lineup or are severely limited as to what they can add because of the money owed to Hafner in the chance that his injuries become more frequent and more debilitating.

Now, of course, this team without Hafner in the lineup does have some potential, and it’s actually interesting to compare how the offense fared with Hafner on the team against how the offense produced after his last game on May 25th:
Production of 2008 team with Hafner
.232 BA / .313 OBP / .362 SLG / .675 OPS, averaging 4.04 runs per game over 50 games

Production of 2008 team without Hafner
.273 BA / .346 OBP / .450 SLG / .796 OPS, averaging 5.27 runs per game over 92 games

The second set of numbers is the important one to look at here as it represents a fair to decent offense, but certainly not the offense of a contender. Of course, factors other than Hafner were in play during those two sets of games (Victor’s injury, Shoppach’s emergence, Peralta’s down-then-up season, etc.), but I think it underscores how important a healthy AND productive Hafner is to this team for next year.

If Hafner is able to augment Sizemore, Victor, and Peralta in the lineup, the middle of the order gains some stability and stretches the production further down the lineup as the likes of Choo and perhaps Francisco can slot lower in the lineup. Even if the production from Pronk doesn’t approach Pronkian levels (and really the closest we may ever see to a return of “Pronk” may come from Virginia’s 11th District), it’s vital for the team to get something from Hafner. Because if Hafner’s inexplicable shoulder injury (or whatever has caused his lemming-like descent) carries over into 2009, his ineffectiveness or absence is going to play a large role in the 2009 offense being merely adequate and thinner, particularly in the middle of the lineup.

Due to the way the offense is designed (which is to rely on production from DH) and the fiscal decisions that tied so much money to said DH, one thing has become obvious as we all welcome Hafner back to the lineup with cautious optimism and with bated breath – a lot of what is possible in 2009 sits on Hafner’s shoulders…and one in particular.


Tyler Wallick said...

Why is everyone overlooking the obvious here - Hafner is/was a steroids/PED player. How much more obvious does it need to be? Why can't there be an honest discourse on this very likely possibility? The media (and fans) just act like it not possible...

Anonymous said...

Now that you started the discourse, how about explaining the “obvious” conclusion to all of us.

Halifax said...

I have to admit, his years in the Texas organization would give one pause ... the incredible shrinking Pudge, Vita-E/Palmero, Juan-Gone and everyone's favorite Jose Canseco all were involved juicers in some respect. That said, guilt by association is only that.

Regardless, the point is moot, because juice or not, the Tribe is still on the hook for nearly 50 million bucks and Hafner WILL be on this team going forward if his balky shoulder allows for nothing more than making coffee in the clubhouse.

So, where do they go from here?

The Indians need to plan on having Hafner as their DH, which limits their flexibility in other positions even more than it limits their spending. The big slow guys like Ryan Garko -- known as hitters who need to play somewhere -- will have their days numbered in this organization. Garko may as well pack it up, especially since he can't hit very well and his adequate glove is taking up space at first base. If he hits like that, Michael Aubrey is a better solution until Beau Mills arrives. At least Aubrey will hit for a decent average and play good defense while hitting for no power. Victor can play first as well if Kelly Shoppach is still around, but Shoppach should be moved while his value is high. Victor can handle the catching duties until uber-Victor Jr. (Carlos Santana) arrives.

Back to Hafner -- he will never again be Pronk. Something from the chest up has broken seemingly beyond repair, let's call it a dandruff disorder (head & shoulders), and he's never going to be the same again. OK. But he should get a little better and back in the swing of things. Hafner has gone through quite a bit over the last two years. He became a star, got married, got injured twice (three times counting the shoulder), became financially rich and lost his father to a long illness. Hopefully, he straightens things out a bit and can come back to 25 HR and 90 RBI while hitting .275. Those respectable numbers will help the Indians, but they can no longer build around Hafner, who has become a complementary player.

The challenge will be to build that offense without his star production, while dancing around his star salary, and who knows, if he happens to find his old self, the Indians will be looking at a championship.

Cy Slapnicka said...

to be honest, the silence surrounding hafner's injury makes it suspicious. but i don't understand why that automatically makes him a juice head? i mean, the guy has been mashing the ball since juco...and maybe even prior. i don't have the time to look up changes to his build and weight, but would be happy to hear any insight on that.

could he have been juicing since high school and college? sure, but that leads us down a dangerous path where anyone larger than 6' and 185lbs is juicing.

i'm not saying he was clean, but just b/c a guy screws up his shoulder, doesn't mean its due to needles and pills. i've seen nothing linking him to juice.

Unknown said...

hafner = juice bag

Unknown said...

I'm interested in the steroid question too. Slapnicka, just because the guy was hitting homers in high school and college doesn't mean his performance in the show was guaranteed--which is to say that it's totally possible he hit the juice when he went pro.

Anyway, they don't call it the Steroid Era because it was just those three players.

Also, I'm interested if anybody has a link to the Olney story from (I think) the beginning of this season about the possibility that Hafner being hit in the head last year was a turning point in his plate presence.

Anybody got a link/know what I'm talking about?

Paul Cousineau said...

I think that the moment that a lot of people reference for Hafner is when CJ Wilson hit him in the hand at the end of 2006.

I can't find anything from Olney with a quick search, but I seem to recall something as well.