Indians Strike Out by Not Signing Travis Hafner


Perhaps the biggest remaining Indians storyline of the offseason effectively came to an end Thursday as former Cleveland designated hitter agreed to a one-year deal with the New York Yankees. The deal reportedly guarantees Hafner $2 million for 2013 and will include performance incentives.

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The Indians had never publicly ruled out bringing Hafner back; as recently as last week they were said to be considering signing him and Jim Thome to fill the vacancy at DH. But now that Pronk’s market price has been revealed, we can infer that the Tribe was never really serious about re-signing him after all—and that sure seems like a mistake.

Let’s get this out of the way: say what you want about Travis Hafner, but he can still hit. Since 2009 he’s OPSed over or just below .800 every season, with OPS+’s ranging from 120 to 130. He’s averaged 24 homers and 83 RBI per 162 games over that span. These aren’t the kinds of gaudy power numbers he posted in his prime, but with the exception of Nick Swisher that’s better than any other Cleveland player can be relied on to hit in 2013.

The predominant opinion among Tribe fans seems to be that the Indians would be better off using the DH slot to rotate bench players in and give the rest of the regulars some occasional rest, and that the roster spot that would have been Hafner’s would be better used on a utility man who can provide late-game versatility. These are noble sentiments and I’m all for questioning the utility of orthodox roster construction, but there’s a problem that makes this path unwise: the rest of the roster.

Consider who the Indians will be pencilling into the lineup this year in Hafner’s stead, either as the actual DH or to let a starter rest his glove for a game. The most likely candidates to pick up at-bats are Mike Aviles and Yan Gomes; they both had OBPs under .300 last year. Lou Marson could see expanded playing time to let Carlos Santana rest his knees—he hasn’t even slugged .300 since 2009. The organization seems to have given up on Matt LaPorta, neither Tim Fedroff nor Mike McDade has ever played in the majors, and Chris McGuiness has yet to even reach Triple-A. It’s entirely possible that one or more of them will prove a capable hitter, but would you bet on it? And is extra versatility really the priority when, in Aviles and Gomes, the team can field a respectable backup at almost every position with just two players?

None of this is new—that’s why I had been in favor of signing Hafner. The difference now is that we know Hafner’s price. Assuming he wasn’t averse to returning to Cleveland, the Indians probably could have matched the $2 million he’s getting from the Yankees and signed him. And if that’s the case, I have no idea why they didn’t do it in a heartbeat.

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I understand payroll space is tight for a small-market team, but it’s hard to imagine that being much of an obstacle. Last month, the Indians spent $7 million on Brett Myers, an average-at-best pitcher, even though they already had a full rotation. Last year, they spent $3 million on a below-replacement-level Casey Kotchman. Also in 2012, they reupped an injured Grady Sizemore for $5 million—the parallel here is actually quite strong, except Hafner is a better player at this point and Cleveland gave Sizemore more than twice what they declined to offer Pronk. If money is that tight, why give Myers $7 million?

This has been a phenomenal offseason for the Indians. I’ve been fully supportive of almost everything they’ve done this winter and I truly admire the work Chris Antonetti & Co. have done in accumulating talent for 2013 while continuing to build for the future. But I can’t see the rationale in declining to cheaply fill the biggest hole on the roster. Maybe this isn’t a swing and miss, but letting Pronk leave seems like a pretty big called strike.