Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Hafner's Return Could Propel Offense to Elite Level

Is it possible that Cleveland is a sleeper team in 2009? The Tribe is coming off a forgettable season where the only thing they clinched in the last week of the season was a .500 record. A terrible bullpen, injuries, trades, and on and on (you know the story, I'm not going to dredge through it again). Last season, Cleveland was viewed as a serious World Series contender with every key player from the ALCS championship squad returning. This season, Cleveland has managed to stay under the radar. Even Baseball Prospectus' projections have set the bar low for 2009, awarding Cleveland and their 84-78 record the AL Central by default after handing every other team a losing record.

Many analysts have passed off Cleveland as a flawed team in a weak division, ceding the AL Pennant to one of three teams in the East. The main hang-up for most people seems to be the starting pitching. Personally, I'm liking the possibility of Lee, Carmona, Huff, Laffey, and Westbrook more and more (how long it takes that rotation to shape up is another matter). So what if we didn't re-sign Sabathia? How many Cy Youngs has the rest of the American League won the last two years? It's Carmona's turn to win the CY this year anyway.

As long as the Tribe can get solid innings out of their top three starters, I think the array of young arms will fall into place to fill out the rest of the rotation. While there may be risk in riding the bullpen too heavily, this relief corps has the potential to dominate the final three innings. The depth and strength of the bullpen could go a long way in smoothing the anticipated speed bumps in carrying so many young hurlers in the rotation. Taken as a whole, the team's pitching is shaping up to be good enough to contend. I certainly wouldn't view it as a liability, not with Lee, Carmona, and Wood leading the charge.

If Cleveland can get any kind of quality pitching this season, I feel that they are primed to do much more than just stumble into the playoffs. Cleveland has its flaws and risks, but they also have the tools to cover any potential holes effectively. In this case, the offense may be a secret weapon of sorts.

In 2007, the Tribe posted a team wOBA of .335 and finished 6th in the AL in runs scored with 811. The following year, Cleveland nearly matched this effort with a .334 wOBA and a 6th best 805 runs scored, despite missing the production of a healthy Hafner and Martinez for the entire season. I was surprised to see such a narrow gap in overall offensive production between 2007 when the offense seemed to fire on all cylinders, and 2008 when it felt like the lineup just couldn't be trusted on any given day. Amazingly, Wedge was able to squeeze some sort of production from the 110 different lineups utilized in 2008 (compared to a more stable 81 in 2007). At some point, out of the 166 at-bats given to Dellucci at DH (second only to a limited Hafner), a nasty sophomore slump from Asdrubal, a .753 OPS out of the starting first baseman, and the fact that the backup catcher had more home runs than the third baseman and two primary DH's combined, Cleveland was only six runs off the pace from a year ago.

Cleveland Team Offense: 2006-2008

Year OBP SLG OPS wOBA Team RS (AL Rank) Team RA Run Diff.
2006 .349 .457 .806 .346 870 (2nd) 782 88
2007 .343 .428 .771 .335 811 (6th) 704 107
2008 .339 .424 .763 .334 805 (6th) 761 44

Obviously nothing's for certain, but I think Cleveland has a shot at cracking the top three in runs scored again. Cleveland didn't have to sign any big names to improve their offense, all they needed was to get healthy and watch the capabilities of their in-house players continue to grow. Peralta had his best season since 2005, finishing second among AL shortstops in wOBA and first in HR (or 4th among third basemen, depending on how you view him). I'm fairly confident that 2008 was no fluke for Peralta and he will continue to be one of the team's best hitters.

A renewed Victor Martinez will anchor the middle of the order once again, relegating Garko's disappointing bat to the bench. If Sizemore is the sparkplug for the offense, Martinez represents the pistons (I'm not very good with analogies). Getting back the captain and team batting champ for three of the past four seasons will obviously provide a huge boost to the offense and give Wedge one less unknown to deal with when structuring the lineup.

This may finally be the year we see Martinez shift into more of a platoon, or even backup role in catching. Shoppach has earned the right to be an everyday starter and with Martinez at first base most of the time, Shoppach will have the opportunity to build on his AL-leading .517 slugging percentage among catchers. A healthy Martinez at first base improves the team on both offense (fewer AB's for Garko, more for Shoppach) and defense (Shoppach is above average behind the dish).

Shin-Soo Choo is a bit of a wild card in that he's never been healthy and had a starting gig at the same time. Choo played out of his mind last season, posting 28 doubles, 14 homers, and an elite .946 OPS over 370 PA. I'm being cautiously optimistic about Choo, since there's a slim chance he'll produce those types of numbers over a full season without a big dose of luck. It's difficult to determine what Choo will actually do as a starter, since his only two Major League stints with at least 150 PA had deceiving BABIP's attached to them. In 2006, Choo had an .812 OPS in 179 PA with a .394 BABIP, while his 2008 BABIP was .373. That's an awfully high occurrence of balls falling in for hits. For comparison, Manny Ramirez had a .373 BABIP to go with his 1.031 OPS last season.

Then again, one thing I've heard multiple times about Choo is how good he is at driving the ball to the gap. It'd be great if I was wrong, but I doubt Choo is capable of posting Manny numbers consistently. With the exception of his SLG, Choo's Major (.291/.377/.493) and Minor (.301/.388/.460) league lines match up nicely. A more reasonable expectation could be for Choo to land somewhere around an .870 OPS (CHONE only has him at .800, but this seems low). Even if he experiences a steep regression, Choo will still be wielding a very strong bat.

Combine the above with Mark DeRosa's OBP in the two-hole, an anticipated rebound from Cabrera, and LaPorta and Brantley in reserve (I'm counting down the days until we cut Dellucci and one of these guys gets the call) and the pieces for a potent offense start to fall into place. Besides Tampa Bay, does any other AL team stand to improve on offense as much as Cleveland? Boston got slightly worse after Manny left, New York added Texiera while the rest of the team continues to age (although they've compensated for this by buying a new pitching staff), and no one in the Central has made any major changes. On paper, Cleveland's offense is flat-out dangerous.

In order to reach their full potential as a truly elite offense, the Tribe will need a come-back season from Travis Hafner. Cleveland was unable to find a suitable replacement for the ailing Hafner last season, finishing with the third worst DH production in the AL. The offense was able to tread water because of unexpected contributions from the likes of Choo and Shoppach, but the lack of an effective DH will only cause more grief for Cleveland. Production from the DH spot has declined steadily right along with the health of Hafner's shoulder.

Cleveland DH Production

Year HR OBP SLG OPS wOBA (Rank) wRC (Rank)
2006 45 .409 .600 1.009 .418 (1st) 136 (2nd)
2007 25 .384 .453 .837 .359 (5th) 102 (5th)
2008 17 .325 .390 .715 .311 (12th) 72 (12th)

It's no coincidence that the team scored 870 runs (second only to New York's 930) the last time Hafner was truly healthy in 2006. Hafner had a career year in '06, slugging 42 HR with a 179 OPS+. The 2007 season saw a steep decline across the board for Hafner and while he was still effective at driving in runs from the three-hole, the apparent discomfort and lack of pop in Hafner's swing foreshadowed the elbow and shoulder injuries that would plague him throughout 2008.

Even with a sub-par 2007 season compared to his 2005-2006 run, Hafner provided quality production and was still among the top five DH's in the league. Hafner's erratic performance turned out to be more than just a slump though and the pain in his shoulder only grew more pronounced once he returned to action in April 2008. In an interview with Anthony Castrovince, Hafner admitted that "[he'd] go out to have a meal and [the] shoulder would burn just from eating, it would wear [the] shoulder out." Even a simple weight lifting routine became an epic undertaking.

After three months on the disabled list trying to strengthen his right shoulder, Hafner returned to Major League action in September only to have the pain and limited mobility return. Hafner had arthroscopic surgery as soon as the season ended to clean out the shoulder joint. To make sure the effects of the surgery stuck, Hafner took up a new training regimen this offseason. He reportedly lost 10 pounds and developed a leaner upper-body in an effort to boost his bat speed to its former level.

When dealing with an injury this severe (he must have been really hurting if he couldn't even lift a fork without pain), odds are the effects were present well before the start of the 2008 season. Only time will tell how much of Hafner's 2007 season was connected to the lingering effects of his slowly weakening shoulder, but there had to have been some serious issues that were either chalked up to a slump, annual wear and tear, or were misdiagnosed in some way. I'm encouraged by the fact that the main problem turned out to be the shoulder and not the chronic right elbow that has troubled Hafner in the past. Hopefully this is the first and last time Hafner has a problem with the shoulder now that it's been surgically repaired.

I'm not ignoring the fact that Hafner's doctor was unable to point to a specific source for the shoulder issues. However, since I wouldn't know how to interpret a more detailed medical report even if I had one, the best I can do is to trust the team's judgement here. Hafner was well into his 2007 slump before the team offered him a long-term contract extension. Why would Cleveland do that if they knew Hafner had even a hint of something that could render him ineffective down the road? It's one thing to have leverage over a slumping player, it's another to take such a significant risk purely for the sake of said leverage. Given how cautious the franchise is about committing salary and how thorough team physicals supposedly are, it doesn't make any sense for Cleveland to willingly give $57 million to a guy with a potentially chronic, debilitating injury.

I think we've heard the last of Hafner's shoulder issues. Hafner isn't the type of player content with just collecting a paycheck on the DL, he's extremely competitive and seems to take it personally when he can't contribute to the team. How often do you hear of a designated hitter committing to a new offseason conditioning program? The dedication and work ethic are there, but Cleveland had better hope they were correct about Hafner's health when they signed him to that extension. The financial repercussions from a $47 million, lame-duck DH would be severe for a small-market team like Cleveland.

Reports out of Goodyear have Hafner making steady progress with his hitting program. Hafner's surgery rehab schedule caused him to come into Spring Training a week or two behind his teammates, relegating him to the indoor batting cages until he became comfortable swinging a bat again. After passing the test with several successful outings at regular batting practice Hafner may get the green light to play in Friday's exhibition game against Milwaukee. In the meantime, he sparred with Cliff Lee in a simulated game, marking the first time Hafner has faced live pitching at camp.

Tribe skipper Eric Wedge indicated modest expectations for the lefty slugger. Unlike in the past, Hafner won't be expected to lead the offense. It's crucial that the coaching staff keeps Hafner on an even keel (to borrow another Wedgism) so that he doesn't press and start to dig himself a hole early on. Being healthy will go a long way in boosting his confidence, but the biggest obstacle to overcome in getting back on track could actually be Hafner himself if he tries to do too much right away.

If the re-acclimation process goes slowly for Hafner, Cleveland will have plenty of backup until he can adjust. A likely scenario is that Wedge starts Hafner out lower in the order and allows him to work his way up as he (hopefully) continues to get stronger. Plan B would be to have Garko platoon at DH temporarily. Look for Choo and Peralta to pick up the slack in the fourth and fifth spots behind Martinez. Actually, here's what I would expect to be the Opening Day lineup:

1.) Sizemore (L)

2.) DeRosa (R)

3.) Martinez (S)

4.) Choo (L)

5.) Peralta (R)

6.) Hafner (L)

7.) Shoppach (R)

8.) Francisco (R)

9.) Cabrera (S)

I've always been a fan of Wedge's "one through nine" approach to running the offense and I think this mantra will be more prevalent than ever. If all (or even most) goes according to plan, there will be few easy outs from top to bottom. The offense still doesn't have much speed (although Choo, Francisco, and Cabrera at least provide options for the occasional steal, hit & run, etc. beyond just Sizemore), but much of the lineup can still rake the ball. Cleveland finished second in the AL in doubles last year with 339 and has had at least seven players in double-digit homer figures the past two seasons. They could have easily had a second straight year with at least five 20-homer players if Choo and Martinez had played a full season.

The fact that the Tribe's power numbers tend to come from unorthodox positions (like catcher and center field) and are more evenly distributed throughout the lineup will help siphon more pressure away from the former team leader in homers. Doubles and walks should be the basis of Hafner's attack. If he can regain his patience at the plate and make solid contact the home runs should come naturally with that punishing left-handed swing.

Again, perhaps the best news for both Hafner and Cleveland is that he doesn't have to have a monster season for it to be considered a success (yes, I know how much he's getting paid, but I think the team is more concerned with him using this season to fully re-establish himself for the remainder of his contract). Likewise, the team doesn't need to rely on him producing a .300 average with 40 taters to achieve a potent offense. Both Bill James and CHONE project Hafner a bit worse than I expect him to be, but it's possible I'm being overly optimistic in the first place. Based on my imaginary projection system I could see Hafner finishing with 29 HR, 90 BB, .288 AVG, .400 OBP, .490 SLG, and an .890 OPS. Since I basically just estimated that from his 2005 and 2007 seasons off the top of my head, I wouldn't take that prediction to your fantasy draft. Still, I don't think an .890 OPS is out of the question for 2009.

The bottom-line for Hafner this season will be how he fits into the offense as a whole. If he is able to drive in 100 runners and draw 80-100+ walks like he has in the past I would consider that a very strong season coming off a serious injury. Who knows, maybe he'll surprise everyone and this will be the year Pronk returns.

No comments: