Sheldon Ocker

CLEVELAND: Travis Hafner lost his allure to Indians fans long ago, somewhere between 2008, when he felt the first painful twinge in his shoulder, and 2011, when he made brief trips to the disabled list with a strained oblique and a sore toe.

More specifically, 2010 probably is when most fans jumped off the Hafner bandwagon, which had been fully booked in 2006, the year he batted .308 with 42 home runs and 117 RBI. But 2006 is an eternity ago in baseball circles. The thinking among the sporting public now is, ďOne more season and we can be rid of Hafner and his $13 million salary.Ē

Most fans would like to spend more of Larry and Paul Dolanís cash, but when it comes to Hafner, the feeling is that the owners wasted their money and deserve to get out from under.

It is true that Hafner has not lived up to his $56 million contract, mostly because of the shoulder injury that was surgically repaired after the 2008 schedule. He hasnít been the same since, even though three full seasons have come and gone. Even in 2011, when Hafnerís shoulder was judged to be totally healthy, Indians manager Manny Acta was forced to put restrictions on his playing time, and all he does is bat.

But in 2012, things are different. Hafner can play every day, if Acta chooses. He no longer has to compensate for his injury by altering his swing. He looks stronger, more confident, more like the guy who terrorized opposing pitchers six years ago.

About time, you say? Maybe so, but for me, Hafner is the Eddie Felson (Google it) of the American League. Heís back!

His keen batting eye has returned. No longer does he swing and miss sliders that almost hit him in the foot. He is forcing pitchers to throw strikes and whacking the ball hard to the opposite field. This is the skill set he used when he was at his best.

Iím guessing most fans donít buy it. They canít fathom that at age 34, Hafnerís career is about to spike. I disagree. I see what I see, and I think Hafner will have an impact season. I donít think 42 home runs are in the cards, but 30 wouldnít surprise me. That would fit nicely with 100 RBI and 30 or more doubles.

Aside from normal pride in performing at a high level, Hafner has another incentive: This is the final guaranteed year of his contract. General Manager Chris Antonetti can exercise an option for $13 million to keep Hafner in Cleveland in 2013, but nobody in his right mind thinks that will happen.

I donít think so either, even if Hafner lives up to my high expectations. On the other hand, I wouldnít totally dismiss the notion that Antonetti will try to keep him, because of the scarcity of impact hitters at the upper levels of the Tribe farm system and what it might cost to replace the kind of production I believe Hafner will deliver.

But the odds are stacked against Hafner coming back for another season, unless Antonetti can renegotiate a new deal for far less money and Hafner canít do better on the open market. Of course, itís difficult to believe that scenario will play out, given the Indiansí reluctance to (or inability) compete financially.

Thereís another reason Hafner probably wonít return to the Tribe: He is part of a dying breed of designated hitters.

When the DH was born, the idea was to keep big-time hitters in the game, even though they no longer could play in the field. But escalating salaries for aging hitters and the desire to bring more versatility to rosters is starting to alter the profile of what a DH should be.

Offensive production, of course, remains the focus of the job, but clubs are seeking designated hitters who can play a position, at least in an emergency and maybe even on a semi-regular basis.

The concept of what a DH is supposed to be might even be at risk. It is a position might evolve into a spot that is shared by a small group of modestly talented defenders, who rotate in and out of the lineup, depending on pitching matchups and the needs of the defense.

This kind of setup would leave Hafner without a job. Of course, if he hits the way I think he will this year, he still will have a future, with or without the Indians.

If Hafner does disappear from the roster next year, how will Antonetti find a primary run producer? Russ Canzler is the only player at Triple-A or Double-A who might be capable of stepping up to become a useful DH. And at this moment, his viability is anything but a sure thing.

The Tribe acquired him from the Tampa Bay Rays during the winter for cash, which indicates he was no more than an afterthought in the Raysí plans. At 25, Canzler has only taken three big-league at-bats, but last season at Triple-A Durham, he batted .314 with 18 home runs and 83 RBI in 474 at-bats.

Canzler demonstrated in his first spring training with the Indians that he is a promising hitter. So how did the Tribe pry him away from the Rays for virtually nothing? Canzler doesnít have a solid position. Heís a first baseman/outfielder who has not demonstrated proficiency at either spot.

He has gotten off to a slow start at Triple-A Columbus, possibly because he also is trying to learn to play third base. At any rate, he probably will pick up the pace at the plate and whatever his limitations he has in the field, the Tribe would have more options with him at DH than with Hafner (Canzler did an acceptable job in the outfield during exhibition season).

Being a lethal hitter in the minors doesnít necessarily translate to the big leagues, so there is definite risk in counting on Canzler to take over if Hafner goes elsewhere.

But if not Canzler, who? Unless Hafner remains in the picture, the club will have a crying need for an important run producer. So whatever the Dolans allow Antonetti to do will go a long way toward determining their commitment to building a winner.

Sheldon Ocker can be reached at socker@thebeaconjournal.com. Read the Indians blog at https://ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.