AS THE Indians sawtheir shot at a title slip away in the span of four days last October--the RedSox outscored them 30-5 to overcome a three-games-to-one deficit in the ALChampionship Series--they had to wonder: Would this be happening were Pronkhitting like Pronk? Designated hitter Travis Hafner, better known amongteammates by the nickname Pronk, hit .308 and averaged 34 homers and111¬†RBIs from 2004 through '06 but last year suffered through a prolongedfunk (call it a prunk). From May through August he batted .237, and after amodest uptick in September he had only eight hits in 11 playoff games and went1 for 12 in those three season-ending losses.
"It would havebeen a solid year for most players," says Cleveland general manager MarkShapiro, who notes that Hafner did drive in 100¬†runs for the fourthstraight season, "but we expect he'll be among the best offensive playersin the game--which he had been before last year."
Hafner still isn'tsure what the problem was, saying, "I just think mechanically I wasn'tquite right, maybe my approach was a little bit off."
Manager Eric Wedgeis 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 yearfrom time to time, and you're just not able to put your finger on why."
March 30, 2008
A return to formby Hafner--an increased focus on using the entire field, he believes, willproduce better results--is paramount for another run at the American Leaguepennant, because there aren't many other areas in which the Indians canrealistically hope to improve. For one thing, the 25-man Opening Day rostercould include as many as 20¬†players from last fall. The lone departure ofnote was free-agent outfielder Kenny Lofton, who remains unsigned, and the onlysignificant addition is Japanese reliever Masahide Kobayashi, 33, who receiveda two-year, $6.25 million deal in November and will join Cleveland's excellentmiddle relief and setup corps.
What's more,several of the key returnees are coming off career years or unexpected breakoutseasons, including ace C.C. Sabathia, the AL Cy Young winner; fellow 19-gamewinner Fausto Carmona; setup man Rafael Betancourt, who had the majors' bestERA among pitchers who threw more than 70¬†innings; and second basemanAsdrubal Cabrera, who played so well as a 21-year-old rookie over the season'sfinal two months that he's now the unquestioned starter. Shapiro knows thatthose performances aren't easily repeated.
"It's hard toask guys like C.C. and Carmona and Betancourt to have the same years, althoughwe hope that they will," he says. "So what you need is someone elsestepping up and improving."
Besides Hafner,another player for whom Cleveland has high expectations in 2008 is FranklinGutierrez, who enters the season as the everyday rightfielder. The 25-year-oldGutierrez is a Gold Glove-caliber fielder--his .971 zone rating, a statisticthat measures the percentage of balls fielded by a player in his typicaldefensive zone, led all rightfielders who played at least half of their team'sgames in '07--but the righthanded batter hit only .232 against righthandedpitchers last season. "I just need playing time," says Gutierrez."This year's going to be different."
The sooner thebetter, because Cleveland's latest window of opportunity to win its first worldchampionship since 1948 might already be closing. Sabathia is a free agentafter this season, and Hafner, who will turn 31 this year, says he's feelingmore aches and pains than before. Then there are the Tigers, who retooled theirlineup after the Indians ran by them after the All-Star break. Even if Hafnerfinds his groove again and the pitching staff remains dominant, the Indiansmight only be good enough to contend for the wild card.
CONSIDER THIS amodest proposal ...
Cleveland's toppitching prospect, Adam Miller, has had trouble getting to the mound. Lastseason he battled elbow inflammation and a strained right middle finger, whichlimited him to 651‚ÅÑ3 innings at Triple¬†A Buffalo, and his debut thisspring was delayed a month by blisters. So the Indians, who selected the23-year-old Miller (left) in the first round of the 2003 draft, might want togive up on the idea of using him as a starter and groom him to be their closerinstead. Not only might the 6' 4", 200-pound righthander have an easiertime staying healthy with the reduced workload, but his two-pitchfastball-slider repertoire is a traditional fit for a relief role. With36-year-old Joe Borowski currently holding on to the position, despite a5.07¬†ERA last year, Miller would be an upgrade.
Difference intotal runs scored by the Indians in the eighth inning last year (97) comparedwith their opponents' total (53). That was due largely to the setup duo ofRafael Perez and Rafael Betancourt, who were first and second, respectively,among major league pitchers in getting the first batters they faced out(minimum: 40 appearances). First batters had an OBP of .091 against Perez and.147 against Betancourt.
[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
PROJECTED ROSTERWITH 2007 STATISTICS
MANAGER ERIC WEDGESIXTH SEASON WITH¬†CLEVELAND
|JAMEY CARROLL (New acquisition)||IF|
New acquisition B-T: Bats-throws
WHIP: Walks plushits per inning pitched
PVR: Player ValueRanking (explanation on page 62)
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EXCERPTED FROM SI
APRIL 6, 1987
LAST SEASON the Indians won more games (84) than theyhad in any year since 1968, and they passed 1985's attendance in their 38thhome date. The fans are excited. It's like 1948 all over again. There's afeeling that this is the year. People, baseball people, are starting to talk.The Indians have quality players at every position. The regular infieldaverages 27 years of age and 87 RBIs. It's a team that is just approaching itspeak.--Ron Fimrite
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Unsure why he slumped last year, Hafner was looking more like his old.300-hitting self in spring training.