The Indians face an important decision this offseason as Travis Hafner's contract runs out. The man once known as Pronk has not played at a prominent level since 2007 when he knocked in 100 runs with 24 home runs. In the five seasons since he has knocked in a total of 213 runs with 58 homers. Hafner signed his current contract prior to that 2007 season after his best season in 2006 when he lead the league in OPS and finished 8th in the MVP race. Based off the strength of that season and the two seasons prior he was given $13 million for each of the last two seasons (2011-2012) and an option for next season at the same price (he also has a buyout of $2.75 Million).
Before the Indians make this all important and seemingly simple decision, there is one peice of information they should look at:
|W W/Pronk||L W/Pronk||Pronk %||W Sans Pronk||L Sans Pronk||No Pronk %|
Here are a few numbers from the last three seasons when Hafner has been terrible compared to the beginning of his time with the Indians. Despite batting averages under .280 every year and never having more than 15 home runs in a season, the Indians have been significantly more successful with Hafner in the lineup. While variability in starting pitching has effected the win/loss record a lot more than the absence of Hafner, his bat has still been a significant part the Indians run scoring effort.
|RPG Pronk||RPG No Pronk|
In a stat more directly effected by Travis Hafner's place in the lineup, the next chart shows the Indians runs per game while he is the lineup and when he is not. Interestingly enough, this is the first season of the last three when the Indians scored more without the Pronk than with him.
The reasoning for the overall discrepancy in runs scored and wins is a subject that has been broached many times on Burning River. What most people don't think of is that when you remove a player from the lineup, the player who replaces him in the lineup is not necessarily the player who takes his position. What this means is that when Hafner was removed from his designated hitting duties, whether it was for injury or child birth, his position is usually taken by a starting position player like Shelley Duncan or Carlos Santana. This player would already be in the lineup with Hafner there, so his true replacement is the player who comes in for the new DH. In the case of Santana (the most used Indians DH after Hafner in 2012) this means that 100% of the time his replacement will be Lou Marson. I've already written multiple articles about this situation with Marson so I won't go into that any further suffice to say that it is replacing a hitter with a career .889 OPS with a .609 OPS. For the most part, when Duncan was used as DH, Johnny Damon was the replacement.
The point is not that the Indians should accept Hafner's option for 2013, they shouldn't. However, Manny Acta has already talked about using the DH spot for regular starting position players all season next year. This means every single game we will see a reserve playing. This would make the Indians essentially a National League club playing in the American League (or like a team managed by Eric Wedge..."your opening day starter in left field, Jose Hernandez...") at a significant disadvantage to all other American League teams. If the Indians don't plan on contending next season then it would be a great way to reduce payroll, but there is no reason for the Indians not to contend. This team was in first place in late June with major pieces missing from the roster. Lonnie Chisenhall and Carlos Carrasco are two huge parts that will return in 2012 while Jason Kipnis and Micheal Brantley are really coming into their own. Giving up before the season starts next year would be a disservice to the team, the fans and the city. Exactly the kind of thing that really gets Chris Perez raging.
What the Indians need to do is to sign a player for 2013 with the expressed intent of using him solely as a designated hitter. That player doesn't have to be an All-Star, just better than Marson and Jason Donald. Hafner is still an option if he is willing to renegotiate after he takes his $2.5 million buyout payoff. He has shown during his limited time during this season that he still has some of that forgotten power, but his tendency towards injury is too great a risk for the Indians to give him another chance. If the Indians are able to fill the hole at first base from within the system (possibly with Russ Canzler), they could put all their offseason spending into one power hitter to use as a DH. With the expiring contracts Hafner, Roberto Hernandez and Grady Sizemore, the Indians should have enough to spend about $15 million a year for a single batter. While the upcoming free agent class doesn't look tremendous, there are still a few players worth looking at in the Indians price range, like Nick Swisher, Melky Cabrera or even possibly Jim Thome if he decides he doesn't want to retire again. Indians brass shouldn't limit themselves to free agents though, as many teams have taken to the salary dump as of late. While normally the Indians would be the ones dumping salary, they have enough wiggle room going into next year to accept some other teams mistakes. One that the Indians really should look into is the contract of Alfonso Soriano of the Cubs. He is owed $18 million each of the next two seasons. If the Cubs were willing to take on at least $6 million of that, the Indians could definitely spare a few young pitching and middle infield prospects. Since this is pure speculation I won't go any further, but it needless to say that a player of his talent level would help the Indians immensely.
As this season comes to a close and we look more towards next season, there will be more on what the Indians strategies should be, but for now remember, if you want to be an American League team, you need a designated hitter.