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Tribe Happenings: Is Hafner’s end near?

Tribe Happenings: Is Hafner’s end near?
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Some news, notes, and thoughts from my Indians notebook…

Hafner could get Sizemore treatment in offseason

Indians’ designated hitter Travis Hafner was placed on the 15-day disabled list on Monday, the fifth consecutive season he has hit the disabled list. He underwent arthroscopic surgery on Thursday at the Cleveland Clinic to repair fraying in his medial meniscus of his right knee.

The injury cropped up in a game on May 23rd against the Tigers after he fouled a ball off his right shin. The knee had been bothering him before that, but the foul to the shin served as a trigger and enhanced the pain he had been feeling in his knee.  He was not immediately placed on the disabled and sat out four games in the hopes a cortisone shot to the knee would help the pain and swelling, but the pain continued and after tests they ultimately opted to have the surgery.

The surgery and subsequent rehab is expected to keep Hafner sidelined for four to six weeks. Six weeks would put him on schedule for a return right after the All Star break, so at the moment that appears to be the best guess as to when he returns. The one solace to the injury is the Indians are getting set to go on the road for interleague play and will play nine games in National League ballparks, which means he would have been limited to pinch-hitting duties for a week and a half.

Injuries have become commonplace for Hafner.  He suffered through shoulder issues in 2008, 2009, and 2010 that landed him on the disabled list each season, and last season he had a foot injury and right oblique issue which sidelined him for several weeks. In 2007 he managed to stay healthy, but he also missed time on the disabled list in 2006 (hand), 2005 (concussion) and 2003 (toe).

When healthy, Hafner has proven to be an important cog in the Indians lineup as he was hitting .242 with six homers, 23 RBI and .819 OPS in 39 games before the knee injury. However, after a hot start where he hit .357 with 1.081 OPS in his first 12 games, he was only hitting .189 with a .693 OPS over his last 27 games.

At this point the Indians can no longer rely on Hafner to remain healthy. Considering they hold a $13 million club option on him for next season, they will most surely decline it and let him become a free agent. He has a $2.75 million buyout the Indians have to pay him if they decline the option, but sinking close to $3 million to cut ties with him is the better choice than sinking another $13 million next year on a declining designated hitter that will only play in about 110 or so games.

This coming offseason the Indians may actually handle Hafner much like they did outfielder Grady Sizemore last offseason. At the beginning of this past offseason the Indians declined Sizemore’s $9 million option for the 2012 season and elected to pay him the $500,000 buyout. After allowing a few weeks for Sizemore to pursue other options in free agency and for them to consider other alternatives as well, both sides eventually agreed on a one year deal for $5 million with lots of incentives.

The one difference for Hafner is he is strictly a designated hitter, so all of the National League teams would be eliminated as options for him. That would leave 15 teams in the American League (Houston moves to the AL next year) for his services, and when you consider at least half of those teams already have a good designated hitter, his options will be much more limited than Sizemore’s were this past offseason.

What that will probably mean is that even though the Indians and Hafner could potentially part ways at the end of the season when they decline his option, I would expect that both parties are reunited shortly thereafter and Hafner agrees to a much reduced one year deal, or potentially a small multi-year deal.

Hafner is the longest tenured Indian on the current roster at the big league level, his wife is from Cleveland and he lives here, he is heavily involved with the community, and he is a fan favorite. So it would be a surprise to see him play elsewhere next season.

Roster mismanagement

I'm a huge fan of a lot of what the Indians are doing and have done, but I am not a fan at all of some of their roster decisions of late.

Third baseman Jack Hannahan came down with a minor back injury on May 13th. It was not serious and he was only expected to miss a few games, so the Indians never placed him on the disabled list. As the days moved on and each day he was unable to play, he eventually tallied up 11 straight games that he missed before he finally returned to game action on May 26th.  Unfortunately, he suffered a left calf strain in that game, and then after it was finally placed on the 15-day disabled list.

I understand that the Indians were caught in a tough spot as they did not want to put Hannahan on the disabled list and the indications from their medical staff was that he would be ready to go any day. But eventually when he hit his seventh or eighth straight game that he missed and he was still not feeling right, it may have been best to just put him on the disabled list retroactive to the last game he played.

While Hannahan was unavailable and still on the active roster, the Indians ended up playing with a 24-man roster for almost two weeks. For a team competing for first place and needing to maximize every opportunity and asset on the roster, they should have gone the safe route and just put Hannahan on the disabled list and brought up another player for the short term.

Speaking of maximizing your roster, the Indians simply are not doing that at the moment.

When they were playing down a man with a 24-man roster while Hannahan was sitting out, I’d argue they were technically only playing with a 20-22 man roster as there was and still is some players on the roster that offer very little to the big league team.

Recently they have cleaned some house in the bullpen as they designated right-handers Dan Wheeler and Jairo Asencio for assignment and have called up right-hander Jeremy Accardo and left-hander Scott Barnes. These have are good moves, but some of the lineup decisions are puzzling.

At the moment their four man bench consists of catcher Luke Carlin, outfielder Aaron Cunningham, infielder Juan Diaz, and outfielder/first baseman Shelley Duncan. That’s one of the worst benches I have ever seen as not one of those players are useful in a pinch hitting situation for any regular in the lineup, nor do any of them provide a defensive presence or a speed variable. In other words, they are unusable.

Everyone knows the Indians need right-handed bats right now. It would help to have a couple on the bench that they can realistically turn to in the later innings to sit Johnny Damon or Casey Kotchman when a tough lefty is brought into the game. No one is expecting outfielder/first baseman Matt LaPorta to be a world beater, but he easily would be a much better option off the bench than Duncan or Cunningham.

Carlin is only up because of the injury to catcher Carlos Santana, but when designated hitter Travis Hafner went down the Indians needed to bring up some power and lengthen their bench by getting LaPorta up to Cleveland. They did not do that initially, but today the Indians are finally going to call up LaPorta because Damon is going to be away from the team for a few days for paternity leave.  LaPorta should be in the lineup all three days Damon is expected to be out, and when Damon returns it will be interesting to see if they send LaPorta right back to Columbus or send someone else out.

Anyway, for a team devoid of much star power and a set lineup, it is amazing how weak the bench is for the Indians. This is not the 90s when they threw out the same All Star lineup every night and the bench was insignificant. This is a team that when healthy has maybe three stars and three other solid players, but has three holes in the lineup on a nightly basis that they should be able to fill interchangeably with the bench and matchup with late in games. But they don’t.

Injuries will be an issue all season. They usually are for any team. But it can sometimes come down to the decisions a team makes to fill the holes on their roster that can be the difference between winning and losing a few games over the course of the season. 

Outfield falls short on defense

The Indians formula to their success this season has been getting good starting pitching, just enough runs offensively, and then turning the game over to their bullpen to close the door.  For the most part that has worked.

The starting staff has not been dominating by any stretch as the group ranks 28th in baseball with a 5.45 K/9 and 28th with a 3.84 BB/9. But where they are really having success as a staff is limiting the big innings as they are 7th with a 0.82 HR/9 and they have implored a pitch to contact approach with a sinkerball staff that is 3rd in baseball with 50.6% of balls in play being hit on the ground.

The success of the starting staff is dependent upon the starting infield as Hannahan and Kotchman have proven to be vacuum cleaners at the corners, and up the middle shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and second baseman Jason Kipnis have proven to be a slightly above average defensive keystone combo.

Everyone points to the Indians offense as the glaring hole of the team, and rightfully so, but the outfield defense is another area that sticks out, particularly late in close games. The pitching staff funnels a lot of the hits to the infield by keeping the ball on the ground, but when it gets hit in the air to the outfield it can lead to quite an adventure.

The Indians lack a plus defender at any of their three starting outfield positions. Right fielder Shin-Soo Choo has a heck of an arm, but an arm does not make one a great defender. His throws tend to sail on him, are off line, and his route running and jumps are inconsistent at the Major League level.

Center fielder Michael Brantley has good speed, but he has average at best range in the outfield and has a below average arm. In left field Duncan lacks athleticism and at times makes routine plays look harder than they should, and Damon has better range but a terrible throwing arm. Fourth outfielder Aaron Cunningham is solid defensively, but hardly much of an upgrade or a player viewed as a defensive asset that is worth carrying on a roster.

At the moment the Indians employ a left fielder and center fielder that have poor arms and that teams know can be run on. They have three outfielders that do not cover a lot of ground and one (Choo) who makes some very questionable decisions at times.

This is not something that is a glaring problem at the moment or has really been exploited yet by other teams, but is something in a close game which is noticed and will be even more noticeable in crucial games late in the season.  Teams know they can take an extra base on balls to the gap even when they are cut off, and they know they can score from second on a well hit ball to anywhere but straight away right field.

This is a secondary problem at the moment, but hopefully when the Indians consider adding a right-handed bat for left field they look to add a player that has a good arm and can play a little defense as well as hit.

Hernandez resolution could be coming soon

Some news on right-handed pitcher Roberto Hernandez - the pitcher formerly known as Fausto Carmona - may be coming soon.

On Monday, Miami Marlins relief pitcher Carlos Oviedo – formerly known as Leo Nuñez – was granted his visa and returned to the United States. Upon returning to the states, Major League Baseball gave him an eight week suspension for age and identity fraud which will carry through until July 22.  Oviedo had spent the last eight months in the Dominican Republic trying to resolve his visa issue after his age and identity fraud charges came about last fall.

Hernandez is still working out at the Indians’ academy in the Dominican Republic and at this time no return date is known since it is still in the hands of the U.S. Consulate. But now that the Oviedo situation has been resolved, all attention should turn to Hernandez.

A decision is expected before the All Star break, and unlike Oviedo, Hernandez is not expected to be suspended since he agreed to a major salary cut this season from $7 million to $2.5 million. Like Oviedo, he would probably be afforded a maximum of 16 days to go on a minor league assignment to get ready to pitch.

Santana update

Catcher Carlos Santana has not played since he was removed from the game last Friday against the Chicago White Sox when he took a foul ball off his face mask. He suffered what has been termed as a mild concussion and was placed on the 7-day concussion disabled list last Saturday. He was eligible to come off the list yesterday, but he is not yet ready to be activated.

Santana has been hitting in the batting cages and participating in light workouts with the team.  The Indians planned to have him catch a bullpen session on Saturday, take batting practice and run the bases and then be re-tested to see if concussion symptoms still linger.  Major League Baseball has to give approval that he can be reactivated, and the Indians are hopeful that he can return sometime this week.

Parting shots

The Indians made some roster moves this past week as they called up Triple-A Columbus third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall and left-handed reliever Scott Barnes. …. Asencio was claimed off waivers by the Cubs on Friday. … LaPorta leads all players in the International League in voting for the Triple-A All Star game this July. … The 2012 MLB Draft kicks off tomorrow at 7pm ET. The Indians have the 15th overall pick. Be sure to check out the IPI all week as we will have TONS of draft coverage with capsules for every player and where available we will also have video and bios included as well. In addition to that we will have tons of post-draft comments from the Indians front office, scouts, and so on, and lots of signing information from the end of the draft up until the July 13th signing deadline.

Follow Tony and the Indians Baseball Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2014 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.

User Comments

Tony
June 4, 2012 - 10:12 AM EDT
My main beef with Sizemore is how quickly they jumped and signed him. They could have waited until January as no one was even going to touch him. His agent did a great job in creating a false market.
Norm
June 4, 2012 - 5:14 AM EDT
As far as Sizemore, we are on the same page. I was told they signed him because he would resign with Cleveland and they weren't sure they could get anyone but the desperate signed. We will never know for sure but many OF options turned them down even when they were high bidder.

Not a big Cunningham booster either but he really has been as good as Duncan and Damon in all around play from what I see. They are pretty interchangeable pieces IMO. They may have to keep Cunningham until Sizemore is capable of backing up Brantley and I am not holding my breath for that. Haven't had much chance to watch Donald play the OF but he must really be bad to miss this opportunity. He should be playing the OF every day in Columbus IMO but you probably know more about that than me.
Tony
June 4, 2012 - 12:44 AM EDT
Yeah Jim, the injuries surely have not helped. If they can get healthy, have a little luck, and some of the injured and unavailable options become available soon, this team could suddenly be deep.

Norm, I hated the Sizemore resigning. The Indians are paying for that decision right now. That decision along with some of their decisions with constructing the roster in the offseason have certainly backfired to date. It is sickening how a guy like Cunningham has survived on this roster so long. Guy is a waste of a spot and it is a sad indictment of how poor the upper levels of the system are with no 4th outfield options. I still can't believe that there has been nothing on waivers worth dumping him and taking a flier on.
Seth
June 3, 2012 - 1:03 PM EDT
This is the kind of stuff that annoys me every year about this team. Breaking camp with Wheeler and Rafael Perez in the bullpen--after Wheeler showed nothing in spring training and Perez was still injured, while Hagadone and Accardo pitched well and earned the spots--predictably Wheeler is terrible and Rafael Perez eventually ends up on the 60-day DL and only now do we have the bullpen they should've broken camp with. (yet for some reason they still hang onto Wheeler, and block Stowell or Price in Columbus-are they really going to consider calling Wheeler back up?) Adding Juan Diaz to the 40-man roster was crazy, calling him up actually made me lose a lot of interest in this team, because it' demonstrates a lack of effort or serious decision making. If you need an emergency shortstop, you find a serviceable veteran off the scrap-heap, you don't turn to a guy hitting .240 in AA.

These are all small moves, but it's this same mentality that's led to the Ubaldo debacle. You always hear about what a good front office the Indians have, and how they've been open to using advanced metrics, blah blah blah ... yet somehow Ubaldo's inability to miss bats and 3mph velocity loss last year wasn't a red flag? There was an interview on fangraphs with Acta a couple weeks ago where he talked about lineup construction, about how he doesn't believe in having the guy hitting 9th be a "second leadoff hitter", that the better guys should all be up front, yet he's had Kotchman hitting in front of Hannahan and Chisenhall all year ... how many runs has that cost them? They talk the talk, and then come time to make decisions, they don't listen to their talking.

The vulnerability to lefties has been an obvious problem since at least 2010, they've had 3 years to do something about it and their solution was trading for Aaron Cunningham, when they could have signed Willingham to an affordable contract. If they didn't trade for Ubaldo and signed Willingham, and used some of their young pitching to trade for another good bat instead of the worst starter in the league, they likely with the division with relative ease, and it would've ended up as a net financial gain (actually, just removing Sizemore and Ubaldo from the roster and adding Willingham would've meant a lower team salary--or they could've offered Beltran $15m/year and had a slightly higher team salary for about 4 more wins to date). As it stands, the only thing that gives them hope is the other teams in the Central are just as dysfunctional as they are.
Norm
June 3, 2012 - 12:26 PM EDT
Nice write Tony. The current roster situation is not good but it was foreseeable and the Indians made the decision to take this risk. The root of the problem is the Sizemore signing, whether or not you agree with it. While I characterized it as "throwing good money after bad", there were valid reasons to do it. In doing that move, the Indians hoped Sizemore would give them 120 good games in 2012 and spent the offseason looking at OF backups to fill in. They tried other options but did not have the money to get a decent OF who was willing to come to Cleveland. As for defense, you may well be right about Brantley but he is a far better defender with a better arm than Sizemore or any other option in the system.

Regardless of our differing opinions on the appropriateness of CPs comments, neither of us disagree about the accuracy of the substance that I see. That situation will likely worsen IMO and will hamper any effort to find players outside the system who have high WAR value in the OF/1B. The best we have is LaPorta and I would be happy if he has an OPS of 750+ in Cleveland and defend a little bit. Maybe more than he is capable of but, as you noted, the bar is not very high.
Jim
June 3, 2012 - 10:57 AM EDT
You know...thinking about the roster...things could get interesting now...and as things stand right now, and going forward, it COULD get really interesting. You've got Chisenhall up now, as well as LaPorta, and Barnes.

Now, imagine Sizemore back healthy in some form, and that discards Cunningham. I know that's not a realistic thought right now...but it could be.

imagine Roberto Hernadez (Carmona) being healthy and back as a #5 option...

Santana back, and even Hafner...

The bench could become exceptional without much stretch...well...not exceptional...but much better...

Then, to get that right-handed bat...

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