Leaner Hafner regaining form
Indians slugger underwent surgery, lost weight in offseason
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- The ball jumped off Travis Hafner's bat and carried out toward the right-field mezzanine section named "Pronkville" in his honor.All right, so you had to imagine the mezzanine part of this batting practice home run Sunday morning. While the practice field the Indians were hitting on at their Player Development Complex does have the exact dimensions of Progressive Field, it does not contain Pronkville's southwest chapter.
But the mere fact that Hafner, working his way back from right shoulder surgery, was outside taking BP with his teammates for the first time, rather than holed up in the indoor cages, was considered a move one step closer to Pronkville."Taking BP outside was fun," Hafner said. "I'm trying to get closer to a normal routine, where I'm hitting soft toss in the morning, then going out and taking regular BP." If Hafner can get back to what was once considered his normal self, the Indians offense takes on a different dimension. But just because Hafner has seemingly recovered from the shoulder issues that plagued him in 2008 doesn't mean the Indians are asking him to shoulder the load in their lineup. "The last thing we want, and the last thing he should even think about, is feeling the pressure of the world," manager Eric Wedge said. "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." The Indians found they couldn't rely on Hafner last year, when he appeared in just 57 games and batted .197 with five homers and 24 RBIs. Coming off an '07 that was disappointing by his standards, even though he had driven in 100 runs, he had a slow start made even slower by the shoulder weakness that began bothering him in April. Forget about providing a lift in the middle of the Indians' order. Hafner couldn't even lift a fork without trouble. "You'd go out to have a meal and your shoulder would burn just from eating," he said. "If you'd do it a few times, it would wear your shoulder out." Hafner also felt worn out in the gym. Weight lifting repetitions he once considered routine became arduous. He'd often need five minutes to recover from the simplest of lifts. It's no wonder, then, that Hafner's shoulder did not strengthen at the rate the Indians originally intended. The team tried to address the issue without surgery. But when Hafner returned to the team in September, after three months on the disabled list, his bat speed was slow, and the shoulder burn returned. He finally went under the knife at season's end. Dr. James Andrews performed the arthroscopic procedure that cleaned out the shoulder joint. While recovering from the surgery, Hafner began putting some lighter foods on his fork this past fall and winter -- and not because he was too weak to lift it. He wanted to drop some fat, and he did so with the assistance of a personal chef. Meals were delivered to Hafner's house in a cooler each morning. All he and his wife, Amy, had to do was heat them up and scarf them down. By the time he reported to the Indians' Spring Training facility to begin his hitting program last month, Hafner had dropped at least 10 pounds. "I gave up Chipotle," he said proudly. "I've eaten probably 50 things I've never eaten before. My tastes have changed. I was in a restaurant and they brought a huge plate of pasta, and I probably ate a quarter of it and was fine." You could say Hafner looks slimmer or more trim. But he has a different take. "More ripped," he said with a laugh. One line of thought is that Hafner's leaner upper half could improve his bat speed -- something he was clearly lacking in the '08 season. What it's not likely to do is improve his speed on the basepaths, though he joked that his number of steals should increase substantially. "I don't want to set a limit or a bar," he said with a smile, "but I'd say 30 [steals], minimum." Indeed, the 31-year-old Hafner might have lost some weight, but one thing he hasn't lost -- no matter what he's gone through over the last couple years -- is his sense of humor. And if he's going to get through this season without putting too much pressure on himself, as Wedge hopes, that little character trait could come in handy. "You're going to face adversity throughout your life," Hafner said. "You've got to stay the same person and remain positive. Just because you're hurt doesn't mean you're not the same guy. You've still got to keep a presence in the clubhouse and be a guy that's fun to be around. You can't just sit around and mope all the time because nobody wants to hear it." What the Indians want, for now, is to see Hafner stringing together some productive days in the cages. He won't be ready to join his teammates in Cactus League play this week, but he should be ready to face live pitching the first week of March, with a Cactus debut soon thereafter. "Spring Training's long enough this year that I'll probably have a normal spring," he said. Everything looked pretty normal Sunday morning, as Pronk peppered line drives to the outfield. He's still a long way from driving in runs at Progressive Field, but Hafner's finally making what he considers to be legitimate steps toward that goal. "It was," he said, "a good first day."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.