Will Pronk perform?
With the Major League regular season approximately two weeks away, this is the question Tribe fans are asking each other and the question that keeps GM Mark Shapiro up at night.
The Dolans have uncharacteristically invested a large sum of money ($57 million at $12 million per year for the next three) in Mr. Hafner, so you know they are eager for an answer.
One thing is for sure, Pronk has not been quite the same hitter since he was hit in the face by Mark Buehrle at the end of 2006.
He had a solid year in 2007, but didn't strike fear in opposing pitchers like he did in the previous two years, where he cut a torrid path through the American League, depositing prodigious home runs in ballparks around the league.
He hit a modest .266 with 24 home runs and 100 RBI in 2007. He still drew 100 walks and had an impressive .385 OBP. Not quite worth $12 million, but the Indians brass would take it.
In 2008, Hafner's production underwent a precipitous decline in an injury-plagued campaign. He came back in late August after a protracted stint on the DL, nursing a bad shoulder and not looking like the polished Major League hitter he had supposedly become.
This Spring has hardly been reassuring, as he has struggled to put together solid at-bats, and failed to drive the ball with authority.
The tribe brass has offered a bevy of excuses, including recovery from offseason shoulder surgery, standard spring struggles with timing, and the mental rigors of coming off a mysterious injury.
Tribe fans say that the marriage to his wife Amy is the reason, or that he took steroids and is now no longer the player he was on the juice. I've talked to scouts that think he is pulling his head off the ball during his follow-through.
Yet, a more subtle trend has emerged as the primary factor in the decline of the Pronk: He has lost his plate discipline.
Early last year I began to notice Hafner was swinging at pitches that he would not have swung at during his productive seasons. Opposing pitchers tantalized him with inside breaking pitches that sunk out of the strike zone and hard fastballs up around the letters.
Unable to lay off those pitches, he's been easily prone to strikeouts. He doesn't fight deep into counts the way he used to.
When he was at his best, Hafner exemplified the patient approach that Eric Wedge and his staff preach so tenaciously. While this approach doesn't suit every player, for Pronk it was ideal.
It freed him up to look for specific pitches in his zone and lay off the junk. As opposing pitchers worked from behind in the count, they were forced to come into the strike zone. In turn, Pronk feasted on American League pitchers one and all.
The good news in all this is that Pronk's health has seemed to have returned as he has not complained of discomfort thus far. He has begun playing consecutive games.
If healthy, perhaps he can regain the command of the strike zone he had once mastered and return to his role as a considerably consistent and productive hitter.
If he fights deep into the count, lays off the inside curve, and disdains the high fastball, Pronk could be the propeller to the playoffs that the Indians have been looking for.
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