Some news, notes and thoughts from my Indians notebook…
Hafner out 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 list 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.
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 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 Hafner went down the Indians needed to bring up some power and lengthen their bench by getting LaPorta up to Cleveland. They have yet to do that, though you would have to think he would come up soon. If they have not called him up simply because they are waiting until the June 17th date when his service clock aligns and ensures he finishes under three years this season, then shame on them.
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
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 percentage 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.
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 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.
The Indians made some roster moves this past week as they called up Triple-A Columbus third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall and 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 Monday at 7 p.m. The Indians have the 15th overall pick.
Tony Lastoria — “Indians Prospect Insider”: Covering the important developments in the Indians farm system daily at www.indiansprospectinsider.com. “Minor Happenings”: His blog at the cable TV home of the Indians, www.STOHD.com. Follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/TonyIPI. Reach him at email@example.com.