In response to a few recent questions in our new online Tribe mailbag feature, let's dig into some fan angst regarding Travis Hafner, the Indians left-handed power hitter.
Hafner has been no where near the monster hitter he was a few years ago when he signed a huge contract extension in line with the Indians traditional policy of trying to lock up their young stars early before they reach free agency.
In fact, since signing the contract extension, Hafner has been, well...half himself.
Last season, he endured one of his worst campaigns as a major leaguer, batting .272 in 94 games (missing more time due to injury) with a mere 19 doubles, 16 homers and 49 RBI. His average wouldn't be bad if his power numbers hadn't declined so dramatically.
A little background: Despite being in the middle of a sub-par 2007 season, the Indians signed "Pronk" to a four-year, $57 million contract extension to keep him an Indian through 2012.
At the time it seemed to be a really smart move for the future given the numbers Hafner produced at a relatively young age.
However, the following year, Hafner hit just .197 in 57 games with the Tribe, missing a majority of the season with a nagging right shoulder injury that eventually required surgery when it didn't respond to traditional rest and rehab.
Although a slimmed down Hafner assured everyone he was healthy heading into last season, he ended up still being hampered by the injury bug.
So the question remains: can the Indians can really rely on him in the upcoming season given he is one of their few "stars" remaining along with Gardy Sizemore and perhaps more importantly, is taking up a huge portion of their slashed payroll?
Just about everyone I talk to about Hafner seems to think he'll get back to being his old self in 2010. But I honestly can't tell if that's more hope and general odds than real "gut" feelings.
Hafner is a decent guy, and along with his wife Amy, is very active in Cleveland charities. Many folks, including some in the Indians front office, fans and even local sports writers, WANT him to excel. With so many of the Tribe's veterans shipped off last season in desperate payroll slashing, he NEEDS to do well.
But is there something a lot of us are missing with Pronk? Is there something we all just don't want to assume? Given the era we live in, I have a hard time dismissing it - not just with Hafner, with anybody.
So, to answer the question: Was signing Hafner to a long-term deal a smart idea? At the time, absolutely. Is his contract weighing heavily on the Tribe right now given their current state? You betcha.
Regardless of why Hafner has struggled the last few years, if you're the Indians, what other choice do you have right now? Trading him isn't an option unless he shows he can hit again. And if he does, the Tribe needs all the offense tey can get. All they can do now is support him, hope he stays healthy and finds a way to turn things around.