Know Your 40: Travis Hafner

They call me "Mr. Pronk." - USA TODAY Sports

"Pronk" was once one of the most menacing hitters in the league. Can he recapture that feeling in a part-time role to avoid injury?

Name: Travis Hafner
Position: Designated Hitter
Bats: Left Throws: Right
Age as of Opening Day 2013: 35 (born 6/3/1977)
Height: 6’3" Weight: 240 lbs.
Remaining Contract: One year, $2 million (Free agent after 2013)
2012 statistics: 66 games, 263 PA, .228/.346/.438, 12 HR, 96 TB, .342 wOBA, 119 wRC+

So much for Russ Canzler being the newest addition to the New York Yankees’ 40-man roster. He was designated for assignment to make room for a pure masher who has not played defense since the new members of the Hall of Fame ballot were still active. Hafner was signed to fill the Raul Ibanez role of power-hitting menace to righties, but his history is more in line with Ibanez’s fellow contributing veteran from the 2012 bench, Eric Chavez. "Chavy" was a former American League star who came crashing to Earth over the previous few seasons due to his constant injuries, but he finally had a good year again last year in limited action. Well, take a good look at Hafner’s injury history since 2007, the last time he played more than 118 games in a season (click to embiggen):

Hafner_injuries_medium

Yeesh. Combined, Hafner played in only 429 games out of 810 possible (53 percent). It’s a damn shame too, because the man nicknamed "Project Donkey" or "Pronk" for short was once one of the most dangerous sluggers in the league.

Hafner remains one of only 15 players to ever emerge from the rural state of North Dakota. Think about that. The tiny, 171 square mile Carribean island of Curaçao has produced 13 (also as many as Wyoming). It was thus difficult for Hafner to get noticed at the now-defunct Sykeston High School in his hometown of about 200 people. His high school did not even have a baseball program, but his feats in American Leagion ball, basketball, and track were enough to receive an invitation to a tryout with the Atlanta Braves, who advised him to enroll in a community college following his graduation (Fun fact: Hafner was the valedictorian of his eight-person class). He chose Cowley County Community College in Arkansas City, Kansas, and even though he did not even know what a fungo or a "hit-and-run" was drafted in the 31st round of the 1996 MLB Draft after just one season there. The Texas Rangers did not offer him a satisfactory bonus though, so he went back for a year, propelled his CCCC team to the JUCO World Series, and got his bonus.

Following a 55-game, .814 OPS romp through Rookie Ball in ’97, Hafner hit a bit of a snag in Low-A Savannah, where it took him a couple seasons to refine his raw talent and get promoted. A 28-homer second season in Savannah later though, "Pronk" was off to the races. From 2000-02, he combined for a staggering OPS of 1.005 across High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A, then made his major-league debut with Texas in late ’02. Hafner was rated by Baseball America as the 46th-best prospect in the game, but the Rangers desired a catcher to replace the departing future Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez. Thus, they traded Hafner and pitcher Aaron Myette for Cleveland Indians catcher Einar Diaz and pitcher Ryan Drese. It was a horrendously dumb deal for the Rangers since Diaz was nothing special, and Baseball America immediately wrote that Indians GM Mark Shapiro should have been arrested "for grand theft slugger."

Early on, the Indians at least tried to use him in the field, and he split time at first and DH throughout ’03. He was not a good defender though, and with a decent player like Ben Broussard ready to man the position, they dropped all pretenses of Hafner’s defensive ability, and he has played only 27 games in the field since then. It was immediately apparent that his hitting was more than enough to keep him in the lineup. He hit 19 doubles and 14 homers with a 113 wRC+ in a 91-game rookie season. Shortly thereafter, "Pronk" went absolutely bananas.

From 2004-06, Hafner broke out to become the third-best hitter in all of baseball, behind only Albert Pujols and the incomparable Barry Bonds in wRC+. During this three-year period, Hafner hit .308/.419/.611 with 114 doubles, 103 homers, a .430 wOBA, and a 167 wRC+. He finished in the top ten for AL MVP in both ’05 and ’06, and tied former Yankee great Don Mattingly’s single-season record with six grand slams in ’06. He might have broken Donnie Baseball’s record if a hand-breaking C.J. Wilson pitch had not ended his season a month early. The fracture foreshadowed Hafner’s future.

Hafner was healthy in ’07 as the Indians won the AL Central and finished a game shy of a World Series appearance, but he was not quite as off-the-charts as he had been the previous three seasons. A 121 wRC+ from a DH was far from bad though, and the Indians felt comfortable enough with Hafner to sign him to a four-year, $57 million extension, one of the largest deals Cleveland has ever offered. None of those years beyond ‘07 went as planned for the Tribe. Hafner suffered numerous ailments and underwent surgery on both his right shoulder and right knee. After missing nearly half the Indians’ games the previous five years, the Indians bought out his 2013 option and he became a free agent for the first time this offseason. The Yankees then picked him up on a $2 million deal to become a part-time DH. Is there anything left for the Yankees to reap from Hafner’s swing?

The right shoulder injury made Hafner horrible in ’08, but he seemed to still be a solid hitter when he did crack the lineup from ’09-’12. He hit .268/.361/.453 with 70 doubles and 54 homers in 372 games, but looking at the splits, he has become more of a platoon hitter than he was in his prime:

2009-12 vs. RHP: 934 AB, 56 2B, 41 HR, .282/.383/.475
2009-12 vs. LHP: 344 AB, 14 2B, 13 HR, .233/.299/.392

His splits are not as extreme as Ibanez’s were the past couple seasons, so it would not be horrible for him to play against southpaws—just not recommended. The Yankees will almost certainly restrict him to righthanded pitching since they will need to keep his game count down anyway to safeguard him from injury.

The short porch in right field is just the target Hafner needs, and you can bet that he is glad to be moving from a park that in 2011 merely ranked around the middle among the 30 major league teams for lefty power hitters to the one on top of the list. We’ve seen lefties like Ibanez, Curtis Granderson, Hideki Matsui, and Johnny Damon take advantage of that short porch over the past few seasons, and now Hafner will have a chance to shoot for it. He’ll spend some time striking out, as he has averaged about 125 strikeouts per 162 games over the previous four seasons, but he will also get his walks more often than Ibanez did as well.

The market was not great for that lefty DH bat the Yankees were seeking, but they added a nice complementary piece in Hafner at a price $750,000 less than what the Seattle Mariners paid to get Ibanez, who is five years older. If the Yanks take the proper steps to keep him healthy, then Hafner could be crucial addition to the Yankees in 2013. His power numbers over the previous few seasons suggest that he still has some game left in him.

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