Mark Shapiro made one of his best trades (and most underrated) of his tenure as Tribe GM when he dealt light-hitting catcher Einar Diaz and Ryan Drese to the first-base rich Texas Rangers for Travis Hafner and Aaron Myette. Diaz, Myette and Drese would all meander around the league for a few years, while Hafner would explode once he was given the DH job full time, and Victor Martinez would take over the hole created by Diaz' departure.
Hafner had lit up the Pacific Coast League in 2002, batting .342 with 21 homers and 77 RBI, and most scouts figured that he was still on the upside of his offensive potential if he could ever get the shot. With Jim Thome and Ellis Burks gone, the opportunity was there, and he hit the ground running.
In 2003, Hafner would break his toe and go on the DL after slumping early in the season. Hafner would hit 14 homers in just over half a season. No, it wasn't mindblowing numbers to be sure, but it did give a glimpse of what was to come in the future. His high note that season was hitting for the cycle in August, to become the first player since Andre Thornton in 1978 to accomplish that feat. There was still some rumbling about Hafner being a bust. It was increasingly apparent that he couldn't field, and with DH his only position, there needed to be the power production that should go with it. There was even talk that Broussard was the better player, and that Hafner may find himself as a bit player if he couldn't improve the offense enough to claim the DH-spot full time. Fortunately for Tribe fans and management alike, Hafner left all doubters in the dust in 2004.
Hafner would enter the MVP discussion by finishing 24th in the voting in 2004, and in doing so, would turn into the Indians Paul Bunyan. Out of spring training came two nicknames, "The Project" and "The Donkey," and Bill Selby would affectionately mash them together into Pronk.No, it didn't make any sense at all, but somehow fit. Pronk would roll out a line of .311/.410/.583, while hitting 28 homers and driving in 109 runs. The irony is that Hafner would only hit seven homers at the Jake, and he finished second in the league with homers on the road. It's really hard to put Pronk's production that season into words. With the sluggers of the 90's all officially off the roster, Hafner filled a void much bigger than any numbers. He provided the Tribe faithful with the guy that could change a game with one swing of the bat.
Hafner needed surgery at the end of the season for bone spurs in his elbow, which really add to his lore. The fact that he played much of the second half of the season with elbow-pain really put his prodigious numbers into perspective. If he could get healthy, one could only wonder what kind of numbers he would put up.
Shapiro would follow the Indians philosophy and sign their new slugger to a long-term contract. He signed a three-year, $7 million deal with a club option for $4.75 million. In avoiding arbitration, the Indians locked up what would be one of the top hitters in baseball for what would turn out to be chump change.
In 2005, Hafner would finish fifth in the MVP voting. Hafner's line that year was .305/.408/.595, with 33 (32 as a DH, a club record) homers and 108 RBI. Hafner would be named player of the month in June, hitting .345 with 8 homers and 29 RBI in only 24 games. His highlight of the month came in late June against the Red Sox. In the first game of the series against the Sox, Hafner would go three for five with two doubles and a home run in a 7-0 shutout. He would follow that performance up with another three for five night with two doubles, a home run and six RBI. The homer was a grand slam in the ninth-inning off of Keith Foulke to win the game. He was on his way to a huge July when he was hit by a pitch and would go on the DL after hitting .480 with 4 homers and 12 RBI prior to the all-star break. In September, Pronk would continue his lore by slugging six homers in six straight games, one short of Jim Thome's record. He was named the Tribe Man of the Year for his massive season.
In 2006, Hafner may have been the best hitter in baseball. His line read .308/.439/.659. His slugging and his prodigious 1.097 OPS were tops in the league. 39 of Hafner's homers were from the DH position, breaking his own record, and 110 of his 117 RBI were also a Tribe record for the DH slot. Hafner's swing selection improved drastically, as he topped the 100 walk plateau for the first time in his career. He became only the second Indians with 40 homers, 100 walks, 100 runs and 100 RBI. Hafner would miss the final 29 games of the season after breaking his right hand on September 1. Like the season before, Hafner was hit by a pitch. Historically, September has been a strong month for Pronk, so we'll always be left to wonder what could have been, since he was second in HR, RBI, extra base hits and walks. There was speculation that Hafner was the favorite to win the MVP prior to the injury. Hafner would tie Don Mattingly's record of six grand slams in one season, hitting his last in an August month that would see him be named Player of the Month for the second time in his career, hitting .361 with 13 homers and 31 RBI in 28 games.
What happened after the 2006 season has been left up to much speculation, and I'm not going to deal too much into that. Whatever you think are the reasons, Pronk's offensive dropped off considerably after the 2006 season. His 2007 line was a still solid .266/.385/.451, with 24 homers and 100 RBI, but obviously it was a decline in production following two seasons that saw Pronk reach the elite of MLB. Many thought that Hafner's early-season struggles were based on contract talks that were going on to extend his contract that would essentially void his 2007 money, his 2008 player option year, and add two more seasons. The four year deal, signed before the all-star break, was worth $57 million, with a club option for 13 million. Hafner would go 0-21 at the end of July, and questions began to crop up about Hafner and his offensive production. To make matters worse, Hafner would bat .186 in the 2007 playoffs, with only two homers and four RBI. He would strike out 12 times in seven games against the Red Sox. Without Hafner, the Indians nearly won the series. Imagine what would have happened had he shown up. 2008 would speak volumes on his future.
Hafner would develop shoulder issues that would put him on the DL from the end of May until the beginning of September. Hafner was hitting a paltry .217 prior to the DL stint. He was worse coming back in September, finishing the season below the Mendoza line with a .197 average, with five homers and 24 RBI.
In 2007, things looked promising. Pronk, a historically slow starter began with a line of .270/.370/.540 in April. Unfortunately, in April, Pronk would make a return visit to Dr. James Andrews to have a look at the shoulder, and another visit to the 15-day DL. He would return on June 5th, and would improve on his April numbers with a new line of .300/.426/.660 between his return and July 3rd. It appeared as though the big lefty was back. Pronk would struggle from that point on. Why couldn't he hit after July? Was it fatigue from having a bum shoulder for over a year or more? Was it Pronk trying to earn his money with a sore shoulder? His final line was .272/.355/.470, with 16 homers and 49 RBI.
Can Hafner rebound to the elite player, the project he was from 2004-2006, or is he relegated to the Donkey he turned into from 2007-2009? Reports are that Hafner's shoulder is a non-issue so far this year. While I doubt that, if the Indians can manage his shoulder, he can be an above-average player, but that's for another article.
Hafner was certainly a major part of the hope that Indians fans had that this team could climb out of the rebuilding mode. He was the bat that would carry the Tribe when the rest of the youth was still trying to figure things out. Sometimes it's hard to do, but look past the past three years and you'll find three of the greatest seasons from a DH in Indians' history, and the reason why Hafner is the DH of the decade.
Congrats Pronk, and here's for you putting up a nomination for yourself for the All-Tribe Teens Team ten years from now.
The Two Thousand, Aught DH's: Richie Sexson, Jim Thome, Kenny Lofton, David Justice, Jacob Cruz, Alex Ramirez, Enrique Wilson, Travis Fryman, Russell Branyan, Manny Ramirez, David Segui, Bill Selby, Chan Perry, Wil Cordero, Ellis Burks, Marty Cordova, Juan Gonzalez, Dave Hollins, Eddie Taubensee, Matt Lawton, Earl Snyder, Brady Anderson, Ricky Gutierrez, Lee Stevens, Karim Garcia, Milton Bradley, Coco Crisp, Shane Spencer, Jody Gerut, Travis Hafner, Ryan Ludwick, Tim Laker, Alex Escobar, Victor Martinez, Josh Phelps, Ernie Young, Ron Belliard, Aaron Boone, Ryan Ludwick, Jason Dubois, Jeff Liefer, Jhonny Peralta, Kevin Kouzmanoff, Casey Blake, Jason Michaels, Grady Sizemore, Ryan Garko, Trot Nixon, David Dellucci, Michael Aubrey, Shin-Soo Choo, Ben Francisco, Andy Gonzalez, Kelly Shoppach, Mark DeRosa, Andy Marte