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03/03/10 7:16 PM ET
Healthy Pronk not dwelling on past
After two disappointing years, slugger ready to rebound
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Manny Acta took Grady Sizemore out of the Indians' leadoff spot, and that move was viewed as a long time coming. What wasn't anticipated was Acta slotting designated hitter Travis Hafner into the leadoff spot. It happened for Wednesday's 6 1/2-inning intrasquad game at Goodyear Ballpark, and it had the man known as Pronk reassessing what he brings to the table. "I must have shown them a few things running sprints," Hafner joked. "I told [starter] Fausto [Carmona] that if he walks me, it's a triple." All joking aside, Pronk was just at the No. 1 spot to get a couple at-bats in and then call it a day. But the key for him this season will be getting those at-bats in on a daily basis and not having nearly as many days off in-between. Hafner, who went 0-for-3 in the intrasquad game, is now 17 months removed from arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder, and he hopes to be completely removed from what's transpired the last two seasons. The guy who once carried the load in the middle of the Tribe lineup and struck fear in the hearts of opposing pitchers became reduced to a sore-shouldered non-entity in 2008 and '09. Pronk prefers not to dwell on it. "I've blocked the last two years out," he said with a laugh. Lucky him, because the results weren't easy on the eyes. Hafner managed to appear in just 151 games over the last two years. He hit a combined .244 with a .752 OPS, 21 homers, 29 doubles and 73 RBIs. Even if those numbers had been rolled into a single season, they would be far below what the Indians bargained for when they signed Hafner to an enormous extension. Pronk still has three years and an option remaining on the four-year, $57 million extension he signed in the middle of the '07 season, and the Tribe has yet to see any real return on the investment. The hope -- and all hopes this time of year are at their most optimistic -- is that a full recovery from surgery will allow the 32-year-old Hafner to not only return to playing every day but also to return to his old self at the plate. And yet, even before the shoulder issue set in, there were reasonable questions posed about the direction of Pronk's performance. After he led the American League in OPS in a 2006 season cut a month short by a hand injury, Hafner's numbers took a tumble in 2007. He hit .266 after batting .308 the year before, his homer total dropped from 42 to 24 and his OPS fell from 1.097 to .837. The shoulder issue, which crept up on him in Spring Training before the '08 season and brought agony to mundane tasks like using a fork or a toothbrush, has robbed Hafner of the opportunity to prove that statistical slide was a fluke. And it has only increased the concern that the contract that ranks as the largest in club history will also go down as the biggest disappointment.But the perceived pressure of the contract and the public criticism of his career path don't seem to get to Pronk. "I don't care at all about it," he said. "Pressure is all about what you put on yourself. Pressure is something that's made up in your head. It's all that you think it is. My focus needs to be on hitting. I keep it simple." A new father (his wife, Amy, gave birth to a boy, Blake Lee, in October), Hafner has been in good spirits this spring. He joked that he does "everything but breast feed," when it comes to taking care of his son. And he seems genuinely enthusiastic about the state of his shoulder. What frustrates Hafner the most about 2008 and '09 was the simple fact that he was unable to get to the plate frequently enough to establish some offensive consistency. The aftereffects of surgery limited him to a series of three-and-outs last year. He'd be in the lineup for three straight games, at max, then on the bench the fourth day. Only once all year did he manage to appear in the lineup on four consecutive days. When one considers the erratic nature of his appearances, Hafner's 2009 stat line is somewhat respectable. He batted .272 with 16 homers, 19 doubles, 49 RBIs and an .826 OPS in 94 games. Not great, by any stretch of the imagination, but not abominable, either. Still, even the most casual observer could note that Hafner wasn't his old self. Discipline was once his forte, but he often looked lost at the plate. "I used to hit one way my whole life," he said. "All of a sudden, I was swinging differently. I didn't see the ball the same as I used to, and I swung at pitches I don't usually swing at. Baseball's all about consistency. It's important to get out there on a daily basis." Even when he was out there, Hafner found himself compensating for the shoulder by tightening up his swing, and that certainly didn't help him in the power department. "I was not getting extension through the ball," he said. Hafner said he has yet to watch video of his swing, in its current state. But going by feel, he believes he has corrected that issue with his swing. And his shoulder isn't barking at him anymore, either. For the first time in a long time, Hafner was able to initiate his offseason hitting program on-schedule in December. "I haven't experienced any fatigue or anything like that," he said. "I was able to swing quite a bit this winter -- three, four, five times a week -- and I never had any problems." In these early days of camp, Pronk has continued the three-and-out procedure, taking a break from hitting every fourth day. But he will ramp up his participation as camp continues. When the regular season starts, Acta is expecting to have Hafner available to him on a daily basis, without all the precautions and protections that pervaded Pronk's 2009 season. And when talking about the top of his lineup the other day, Acta mentioned Hafner as his likely cleanup hitter. That's quite a show of faith, given the circumstances. But at least Acta won't be penciling Pronk in as the leadoff guy.
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Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.