The pessimistic Indians fans' list of concerns might read something like this: Who will be the club’s fourth and fifth starters? Can Carl Pavano actually pitch? Will Kerry Woods make it through a week of the season without breaking in two?
How is Grady Sizemore’s groin (a question many northern Ohio ladies have been asking for years)? How is Shin-Soo Choo’s shoulder? Why did I take out an interest-only, adjustable-rate mortgage on that house near Winter Haven? But one question shines above all others…
Each year from 2004 through 2007, Travis Hafner batted in more than 100 runs and had at least 145 hits. He hit over .300 in 2004, 2005, and 2006. Over those same three years, his slugging percentage climbed steadily from .583 to .659.
After a three year stretch where he was arguably better than David Ortiz, Pronk slowed a bit in 2007, slugging only .451 and batting .266, but the Tribe came to within one win of the World Series and a rebound in 2008 seemed likely. Then the bottom fell out.
Last year, Hafner batted just .197 in 57 games before Cleveland shut him down for most of the year. There was a failed return to the lineup late in the season, and then he underwent shoulder surgery in October.
It was a long summer for season ticket holders in Jacob Field’s Pronkville, for the the manufacturers of the chocolaty Pronkbar, and for anyone else emotionally tied to the fortunes of a slugger named after a donkey.
After spending a quiet off season watching wrestling, shaving his head, and paling around North Dakota (at least that’s what I imagine him doing) Hafner is back! Pronk told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that he feels like “the problem is fixed” and Manager Eric Wedge says he likes what he’s seen so far.
Hafner went 0-2 in his first spring training appearance last Friday and then 1-2 with a RBI double on Sunday. He added another RBI in a 2-3 performance on Tuesday, then went 0-3 on Wednesday. With three and a half weeks left before the season opener at Texas, the club is being very conservative. Still, there are reasons to be optimistic.
One, Hafner’s arm hasn’t fallen off.
Two, he’s driving in a few runs, which is his job, and is one thing the Indians were sorely missing last year—along with a bullpen, a closer, a third baseman…
While Hafner slowly ramps up to the season, Wedge is working hard to take the pressure off, telling MLB.com, "The last thing we want, and the last thing he should even think about, is feeling the pressure of the world. That's just silly.
"We don't need him to be great. We just need him to have a nice, solid year for us. If everybody does their part, we don't need to rely on any one person."
Nice sentiment, Wedge, but tell it to the residents of Pronkville. After last year’s lost season, they’re eager for Pronk’s triumphant return.