Around the Horn: Healthy Pronk vital at DH
Tribe used offseason to enhance club's bench depth
This is the final story in a six-part Around the Horn series, examining aspects of the Indians' roster as Spring Training approaches. Today, we'll take a look at Cleveland's designated hitter and bench.
CLEVELAND -- There was a moment last season when Travis Hafner turned back into the Pronk of old. The top of his jersey flapped open as he flexed his arms, let out some shouts and tore around the bases after a monstrous home run.
That July 7 blast against the Blue Jays -- a towering walk-off grand slam from Hafner -- provided one of the signature wins of the Indians' 2011 season. It was also a glimpse into the power that still resides inside the designated hitter's bat bag.
The problem, as has been the case four years running, was that Cleveland could not keep Hafner in the lineup for the entirety of a season. The Tribe enters the coming campaign hoping once again that the DH can avoid injury and regain his place as a force in the batter's box.
"What we were able to see," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said, "prior to some of those injuries last year, is that Travis is still capable of being a very productive Major League hitter."
Cleveland's roster is full of questions, and many involve recent injuries suffered by a slew of players. That is one of the main reasons why the Indians have spent this winter trying to build up more depth, adding experienced hitters to either reside on the bench or provide backup plans in the Minor Leagues.
The Tribe saw its entire outfield go down with injuries last season, and the club had other health woes strike around the infield. Hafner was not immune to the injury bug, either. The DH missed 50 days between two stops on the disabled list, and he sat for a handful of others due to lingering issues while still active.
It marked the fourth year in a row that Hafner had at least one stint on the DL.
"Travis, to his credit, he really tried to battle," Antonetti said. "We obviously had a number of injuries to other guys. Travis played for quite a while at far less than full strength, just to try to help the team and contribute in any way he [could]."
Overall, the 34-year-old Hafner hit .280, with 13 home runs and 57 RBIs, in 94 games for the Indians in 2011. He missed time due to a right oblique strain and was later hindered by a persistent right-foot issue. When he was in the lineup for the Tribe, Hafner posted a .361 on-base percentage.
Hafner began the year strong, hitting .347, with eight homers and 35 RBIs, over his first 48 games -- compiling a .428 on-base percentage and a .567 slugging percentage in 150 at-bats. Over his final 46 games, though, the he hit .223/.303/.349, with five homers and 22 RBIs, across 175 at-bats.
On the plus side, Hafner's shoulder woes of seasons past did not resurface.
"Right, which is good," Antonetti said. "I hope we have another year like that, where you guys aren't asking about his shoulder and we aren't really thinking about it."
Hafner is slated to make $13 million this season, which is the final guaranteed year of his current contract. When he is not serving as the DH, Cleveland would likely turn to a right-handed alternative. Last season, that backup DH role was primarily filled by Shelley Duncan, who could do the same again this year.
The Indians could go in a variety of ways in assembling their bench.
"When you look at some of the guys we've brought in," Antonetti said, "and some of the guys we retained from last year, we have a very good group of players that have the potential to complement our regular guys and, beyond that, provide depth."
Barring injury, the only perceived lock for the bench is backup catcher Lou Marson.
That leaves three vacancies, that will likely consist of a fourth outfielder and two utility players. Having a right-handed bat or two on the bench could be key, considering the Indians have seven pure lefties in their projected lineup. Cleveland will also look to have as much versatility as possible.
"That's a big part of it," Antonetti said. "We had a few goals when we set out this offseason: to not only improve our everyday position-player club and our starting rotation, but also to add a layer of depth -- both positionally and pitchers -- that can contribute in the event that things don't play out as anticipated."
Right now, the Tribe looks to have a competition for the starting job at third base (Jack Hannahan and Lonnie Chisenhall). The result of that battle will surely influence the direction Cleveland goes with respect to its bench alignment.
Hannahan, Duncan, Russ Canzler and Matt LaPorta could be in the mix for infield bench roles, along with Jason Donald, Cord Phelps, Andy LaRoche, Jose Lopez and Gregorio Petit. Outfielders competing for jobs include Duncan, Canzler, Aaron Cunningham, Fred Lewis, Ryan Spilborghs, Felix Pie and Chad Huffmann, among others.
"We feel like we've been able to ... bring in a good group of guys," Antonetti said, "that should, not only compete for spots in Spring Training, but could provide us with some quality alternatives in the event that a need arises during the season."