From what I can tell, there seem to be two fairly entrenched camps that have sprung up regarding the Indians’ approach to the designated hitter spot this season.
The first group seems to be arguing that the team might be better off without a full-time DH. The thinking here goes that a designated designated hitter makes the team less adaptable; it would hamstring Terry Francona’s ability mix and match lineups by taking one spot off the table. It would also take up a valuable roster spot that could more aptly be filled by a player with some versatility. Travis Hafner’s onerous contract and awful performance are cited heavily in this camp, who would basically prefer to see Mike Aviles in some capacity almost every day—filling in around the diamond at various positions while allowing the regulars to slot in at DH or occasionally take the day off entirely.
The second group wants a DH. They see an everyday spot in the lineup that will currently be filled either by Mike Aviles (.663 OPS in 2012) or Lou Marson (.635) and realize that that sort of production just isn’t good enough—not when you could add in a DH and not lose much in the way of team defense by allowing Marson and Aviles to be role-players rather than everyday ones. This group also likes to point out that either Travis Hafner or Jim Thome will likely come very cheap, and as long as they are managed properly (i.e. not everyday players, but used in three to four games per week against RHP), there’s a chance they could stay healthy enough to post an OPS north of .850 or so.
And I guess that while I usually try to bridge the divide among warring Tribe factions and act as conciliator, I have to say I find myself falling pretty firmly in that second camp, and that the player I keep coming back to to fill the role is Travis Hafner. There are several reasons for this.
First, I really don’t think people realize what it would mean not to add another bat. While versatility sounds nice, it’s really only helpful if the player who’s being asked to be versatile is actually good. Mike Aviles and Lou Marson just aren’t, no matter how much we may want them to be.
Second, Travis Hafner is probably a lot better hitter than you realize. Outside of his execrable 2008 season, he’s never had a wOBA below .340 and never slugged less than .440. Can you guess how many times Lou Marson and Mike Aviles have done that combined? That would be one time: Mike Aviles’ 2008 campaign where his BABiP was an anomalous .357. So even on Hafner’s worst day, he’s a superior hitter to both Aviles and Marson.
Speaking of anomalies, did you know that Hafner’s batting average on balls in play last season was only .233, suggesting some really crummy luck for a player who’d posted BABiP’s of around .300 or better over the prior three seasons? For this reason alone, I think it’s more likely than not that his 2013 will be better than his 2012 was—and his 2012 was probably much better than anything Mike Aviles is capable of.
But even more than all the numbers and evidence that I can throw at you, I keep coming back to the same issue. How could adding Hafner on a dirt-cheap contract a bad thing? Let’s pretend he pulls a Sizemore and destroys his shoulder while cashing his first Spring Training check, preventing even one at bat next season. Then the team will be in the exact position that some fans are already pulling for: Mike Aviles and Lou Marson will be playing major roles. It’s not like the team is deciding how to spend that million or so bucks; basically, they’re either gonna do it or they’re not. I don’t see what we gain from not adding him.
And why Hafner and not Thome? I understand the optics would probably play better if we gave the job to the hero from the nineties, but I guess if you’re asking me which one of these guys is more likely to be able to handle 350 plate appearances, I’m going to go with the 35 year old over the 42 year old every day and twice on Sundays. I still think Hafner was miscast as an everyday player during his previous contract—probably because of his previous contract. The front office was paying the guy $13 million, and in an effort to recoup the investment, they insisted he play more often than he should have been. I think on a more appropriately sized contract and with a new manager, the message might be sent rather quickly that Hafner should be used judiciously in order to preserve his health. He could sit three or so games a week, and arguably be a better version than he has been in recent years.
Thome, on the other hand appears much closer to the actual end of his career. He is 42. Last season his ISO (slugging minus batting average—a measure of raw power) dropped below .200 for the first time in his career. He hurt his back while playing first base (good ole Cholly, up to no good), and managed only 186 plate appearances on the season because of it. I guess I just don’t believe in 42 year old baseball players unless they’re named Barry Bonds, and even then, the bounds of credulity are strained.
I say this knowing full-well that I also advocated signing Grady Sizemore last year. In other words, I may have lost the right to be taken seriously by a sizable portion of the fanbase.
But that situation was different to me: the team was choosing how to spend the $5 million they had on hand—they could’ve spent it on Grady OR on a real left fielder OR on a starting pitcher. This time, they’re either going to spend the million on a DH or they won’t add anything; they’re either going to add potential value, or they’re going to do nothing.
Perhaps it speaks to how soured the town has gotten on past-his-prime sluggers from yesteryear, but more and more I seem to be hearing people from that first camp—with more scar tissue built around their baseball psyches than Pronk’s shoulder—advocating that we just can’t go down that road again. That sometimes, a clean break is best, no matter the cost.