"A return to form by Travis Hafner is paramount for another run at the pennant."
As the Indians saw their shot at a title slip away in the span of four days last October -- the Red Sox outscored them 30-5 to overcome a three-games-to-one deficit in the AL Championship Series -- they had to wonder: Would this be happening were Pronk hitting like Pronk? Designated hitter Travis Hafner, better known among teammates by the nickname Pronk, hit .308 and averaged 34 homers and 111 RBIs from 2004 through '06 but last year suffered through a prolonged funk (call it a prunk). From May through August he batted .237, and after a modest uptick in September he had only eight hits in 11 playoff games and went 1 for 12 in those three season-ending losses.
"It would have been a solid year for most players," says Cleveland general manager Mark Shapiro, who notes that Hafner did drive in 100 runs for the fourth straight season, "but we expect he'll be among the best offensive players in the game -- which he had been before last year."
Hafner still isn't sure what the problem was, saying, "I just think mechanically I wasn't quite right, maybe my approach was a little bit off."
Manager Eric Wedge is stumped, too, but not concerned. "It wasn't for lack of effort or work, and he wasn't injured," Wedge says. "Every great hitter has an off year from time to time, and you're just not able to put your finger on why."
A return to form by Hafner -- an increased focus on using the entire field, he believes, will produce better results -- is paramount for another run at the American League pennant, because there aren't many other areas in which the Indians can realistically hope to improve. For one thing, the 25-man Opening Day roster could include as many as 20 players from last fall. The lone departure of note was free-agent outfielder Kenny Lofton, who remains unsigned, and the only significant addition is Japanese reliever Masahide Kobayashi, 33, who received a two-year, $6.25 million deal in November and will join Cleveland's excellent middle relief and setup corps.
What's more, several of the key returnees are coming off career years or unexpected breakout seasons, including ace C.C. Sabathia, the AL Cy Young winner; fellow 19-game winner Fausto Carmona; setup man Rafael Betancourt, who had the majors' best ERA among pitchers who threw more than 70 innings; and second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera, who played so well as a 21-year-old rookie over the season's final two months that he's now the unquestioned starter. Shapiro knows that those performances aren't easily repeated.
"It's hard to ask guys like C.C. and Carmona and Betancourt to have the same years, although we hope that they will," he says. "So what you need is someone else stepping up and improving."
Besides Hafner, another player for whom Cleveland has high expectations in 2008 is Franklin Gutierrez, who enters the season as the everyday rightfielder. The 25-year-old Gutierrez is a Gold Glove-caliber fielder -- his .971 zone rating, a statistic that measures the percentage of balls fielded by a player in his typical defensive zone, led all rightfielders who played at least half of their team's games in '07 -- but the righthanded batter hit only .232 against righthanded pitchers last season. "I just need playing time," says Gutierrez. "This year's going to be different."
The sooner the better, because Cleveland's latest window of opportunity to win its first world championship since 1948 might already be closing. Sabathia is a free agent after this season, and Hafner, who will turn 31 this year, says he's feeling more aches and pains than before. Then there are the Tigers, who retooled their lineup after the Indians ran by them after the All-Star break. Even if Hafner finds his groove again and the pitching staff remains dominant, the Indians might only be good enough to contend for the wild card. -- Ben Reiter
Issue date: March 31, 2008