Pronk's pop could prove key to Yanks' early fortunes
With Granderson, A-Rod out for foreseeable future, club needs veteran slugger on field
TAMPA, Fla. -- There were eight kids -- four guys and four girls -- in Travis Hafner's senior class in Sykeston, N.D., and this setup provided at least one positive, from a social standpoint.
"Everybody," Hafner has often joked, "had a date for prom."
But from a baseball standpoint, Hafner came up in decidedly adverse circumstances. There weren't enough bodies in the Sykeston High Class of '95 to field a coed softball team, let alone a varsity baseball squad.
So by the time the man who would come to be known as "Pronk" made it to Cowley Community College in Arkansas City, Kan., his most extensive experience in the sport had come solely in American Legion ball. Hafner was so far behind the learning curve that he had no clue about the value of hitting to the opposite field. He thought that was something that just happened when you were late with your swing.
The Travis Hafner who arrived to Yankees camp this spring is quite a bit more polished, quite a bit more accomplished than the one who showed up to community college. But as he prepares for the 2013 season, it might benefit the left-handed-hitting Hafner to summon those Sykeston instincts. The short right-field porch at Yankee Stadium awaits him, and it could be a factor that helps Hafner reclaim the Pronk power of old.
The Yankees certainly hope that's the case, especially now that they'll be without the left-handed power of Curtis Granderson for at least the first month of the season.
"I think it will be a really good park for me to hit in," Hafner said. "I don't think as a hitter you ever want to be dead pull, but if you stay within your approach and pull balls, it's a good park to hit in."
Actually, the park factor data will tell you Yankee Stadium is as good as it gets for left-handed power hitters like Hafner. It is a more welcoming environment for lefties than Pronk's old playground at Progressive Field, though there was a time when the right-field mezzanine at that park bore the name "Pronkville" in his honor.
The Indians closed "Pronkville" well before Hafner actually left the club. When the seating section was first given that name in 2006, it was a fitting tribute to a man who had become one of the most feared middle-of-the-order bats in the big leagues. By last season, "Pronkville" had become the Subway Extreme Fan Zone, as, by that point, Hafner's inability to stay on the field had made his power output -- ahem -- "sub"-par.
And that, of course, is the prerequisite pause that must be placed before any conversation about what the 35-year-old Hafner brings to this Yankees lineup, which is in need of some pleasant surprises. If recent -- and, really, not-so-recent -- history is any indication, he is going to spend time on the disabled list this season. That's a "when," not an "if."
It's a shame, too, because for a time, Hafner was a monster who molded power and plate discipline. He posted a .976 OPS over a four-season stretch from 2004-07, fourth best in the bigs in that stretch. He averaged 32 homers while getting on base in more than 40 percent of his plate appearances.
"To me, in '06 and '07, he was the best hitter in baseball," said CC Sabathia, Hafner's teammate then and now. "It didn't matter if it was a righty or a lefty. It didn't matter who you put up there, you felt good about the matchup."
These days, manager Joe Girardi will have to play the matchups, giving Pronk a break against lefties and likely against some righties, too, if only to preserve his body.
What will Girardi get out of Hafner?
As one scout put it, "He's still strong enough to do some damage when he's right, but that body just isn't holding up. It's going to be smaller and smaller portions of each season that he can actually provide some production."
What gets overlooked on the ledger of a guy who has averaged just 86 games over the last five seasons is that Hafner has been pretty effective in those stretches between shoulder, knee and back woes. In that 2008-12 time frame, he managed a respectable .259/.353/.436 slash line, with an adjusted OPS 17 percent better than league average and satisfying walk rates. Hafner logged just 263 plate appearances last season, but he hit 12 homers.
So it's still in there, provided he's in there. But Hafner simply is not in there often enough. He could hit 25 homers for the Yanks this season, or he could play in just 25 games. Nobody really knows, but, for $2 million plus incentives, the Yankees felt it was worth finding out.
Hafner, then, perfectly exemplifies the Yanks' austere, risk-reward approach to the coming season -- an approach that will be immediately tested after a guy like Granderson goes down. The Yanks' clubhouse is akin to something you'd see in an NFL training camp, with 83 players on board and club officials hopeful they'll catch lightning somewhere, some way. They have high hopes for Hafner, but not necessarily high expectations, simply because of his injury history.
Manufacturers send Hafner a box of gloves each spring. It's like sending a letter to the Easter Bunny. Thanks to an arthritic right elbow that inhibits throwing, Hafner hasn't played first base since 2007. He stands with David Ortiz as something of a dinosaur -- the one-tool player, the traditional DH.
With Nick Swisher, Raul Ibanez and Russell Martin long gone and Alex Rodriguez and now Granderson out of the mix for the foreseeable future, the Yanks' need for power potential is a particularly glaring one.
If his body allows it, Hafner shouldn't have any trouble providing some pop at Yankee Stadium, much like he didn't have any trouble finding a prom date in high school. With Hafner, though, that "if" is a big one.