That is to say, if "damage" was found, then it could have been conceivably "repaired" and that "damage" could be pointed to as the cause of the shoulder weakness. But "no structural or nerve damage was found or repaired", so the explanation as to why Hafner's shoulder bottomed out at 15% strength this year and prevented him from playing consecutive days after rehabilitation continues to elude us. Is the thought that removing these "chronic changes brought about by the grind of baseball" (I'd like a translation on that, by the way) the first step to recovery? Despite news that he'll be "ready for Spring Training" that we're supposed to take at face value, are we all now simply to assume that because the shoulder has been "cleaned out" that a miraculous return to Pronkitude is ahead of us? Pardon me while I attempt to look past this grain of salt... Look, we all know what a healthy Pronk means to the middle of this lineup and the APB went out for him as long ago as June of last year, with his continued absence contributing to the problems of 2008, but the results of this surgery, and the lack of any real cause or answer, underscores how badly this could all turn out. The Indians owe Hafner $49M over the next four seasons and being forced to either put him in the lineup, because of his contract and regardless of his effectiveness, or hang the albatross of a contract with no production to show for it has enormous ramifications on the future of this team. Is it telling that a line of .800 OPS with 20 HR and 75 RBI from Hafner in 2009 would look AWFULLY good to me? How's that for diminished expectations...and, truthfully, I'm not even expecting that given the way that this whole shoulder debacle is going. Don't get me wrong, I would LOVE to see Pronk return in 2009 with the ferocity that we all grew to love from 2004 to 2006, but the cloak-and-dagger nature of every bit of information about his shoulder and the fact that little is still known about what is wrong with it (seeing as how the Indians have a bit of a financial stake in identifying it and fixing it), much less what the proper way to return his shoulder to a level of strength over 75% (without having to skip every other game) has me worried about the long-term future of Travis Hafner...much less if we'll ever see the return of Pronk. Given then, that Hafner is now suddenly a wild card in the 2009 mix as Dr. James Andrews' name generally does not accompany happy news in terms of an athlete's health, what do the Indians do to provide themselves some insurance in the chance that Hafner will not be ready to contribute in 2009? The idea of keeping Shoppach has been thrown out there, with the idea that ShopVac would remain the C, Victor would become the 1B, and Ryan Garko would become the DH...and that very well could be case eventually, though Garko at DH is less appealing to me than Garko at 1B (which is unappealing to begin with). Suddenly, I think that the Hafner situation may affect the Shoppach discussion (and I think you move him ONLY if he's netting a legit top-to-mid-rotation starter or an impact infielder, regardless of Hafner) as the middle of the Indians' lineup just got murkier. That being said, I would have to think that the insurance for Hafner, in the long-term (and maybe even at some point this year) is going to be provided by Matt LaPorta. Prior to this Hafner melodrama, I pictured LaPorta starting the 2009 season in Columbus, splitting time between LF and 1B (with Michael Brantley splitting time between LF and CF to accommodate LaPorta in the OF), if only to keep him prepared at both positions for when the Indians decided to call on his services. The thought process went that LaPorta would start the season in AAA, with Francisco and Garko ahead of him at the two positions that he would be manning in Columbus. If LaPorta shot out of the gate in AAA, the Indians would have him ready to step in at either LF or 1B (thought to be two of the more questionable positions of the team for the long-term), depending upon the performances of The Ben Francisco Treat and Gark. Now, with this Hafner conundrum in the mix, it becomes very possible that DH is now added to the list of LF and 1B as possible destinations for LaPorta at some point in early-to-mid-May. Early-to-mid-May, you say...when he has yet to take an AB in AAA? Yes, early-to-mid-May...and while perhaps I'm overly bullish on the timeframe of LaPorta's arrival, I look to the performance of a few other players and their leap from thriving in AA to MLB with relative smoothness. For the sake of comparison, I'll use LaPorta's numbers from Huntsville and Akron (where he admittedly did not hit very well for a variety of reasons, namely a trip to Beijing, his mother being diagnosed with MS, and the whirlwind of life changes that accompanies simply changing organizations) here to encompass the whole body of work and not just to post the absurdly good Huntsville numbers. And with the middling Akron numbers thrown in there, his line is still pretty impressive: Matt LaPorta - 2008 in AA (age 23) .279 BA / .386 OBP / .539 SLG / .924 OPS with 22 HR, 24 2B, and 74 RBI in 101 games Now compare those numbers to two players who have recently made the successful leap to the Majors with very little time spent in AAA: Ryan Braun - 2006 in AA (age 22) .303 BA / .367 OBP / .589 SLG / .956 OPS with 15 HR, 19 2B, and 40 RBI in 59 games Evan Longoria - 2007 in AA (age 21) .307 BA / .403 OBP / .528 SLG / .931 OPS with 21 HR, 21 2B, and 76 RBI in 105 games Is this wishful thinking or discriminately cherry-picking names, based on how both of these players seamlessly mashed their way into the Bigs? Perhaps, but if LaPorta's bat is as advanced as it was purported to be at the time of the trade and as his AA numbers compare favorably to these two, isn't there some merit to the thought that LaPorta could follow the path blazed by them (starting the year in AAA, before an early-season call-up) in 2009? Braun started his 2007 in AAA, playing in 34 games there (mashing to the tune of a 1.119 OPS) before beginning his Rookie of the Year campaign for the Brew Crew. Likewise, Longoria did spend 31 games in AAA in 2007 before getting 7 games under his belt in Durham this year prior to his call-up to the Rays, but his overall time in AAA was pretty limited. Yes, LaPorta was the oldest of the three players at AA, but he also began his minor league career as a 22-year-old in Rookie Ball mainly because of his age when drafted, whereas Ryan Braun played for the same Milwaukee Rookie League affiliate as a 21-year-old, and Longoria began his minor league career as a 20-year-old in A ball. The fast-track progression of the three is very similar as they hit their way out of every level they played in until the call was made for them to join the parent club...in the case of Braun and Longoria, at least.
Obviously, a good deal of this is going to depend on LaPorta's performance out of the gate in AAA, but if LaPorta excels in Columbus while one of the three positions that he can fill (LF, 1B, or DH) reveals itself as a weakness on the parent club, I can't imagine a justification for leaving LaPorta in AAA if Hafner isn't healthy or Francisco/Garko struggle. Depending upon what, exactly, happens with the progression of Hafner's shoulder, the Indians could use LaPorta's "flexibility" (if you can really call it that) to cover one of those positions if one of the players falters or isn't healthy. Of course, if Hafner is on the shelf to start the season AND Shoppach is moved for a starter, the Indians are going to be scrambling somewhat to find players to fill both 1B and DH out of the gate (Mike Aubrey anyone) or moving some of the extra OF into the DH role (Dellucci, Francisco, and Gutierrez) around to take some AB with the hope that LaPorta's scheduled arrival happens earlier rather than later. Much of this, though, falls on Hafner - even if he is able to merely post Garko-esque numbers from the DH spot - as it allows the Indians not to scramble around for 2009 for someone to take AB as the DH and to allow LaPorta to (hopefully) settle in at AAA before his car hits the ramp to I-71 North from Columbus to Cleveland. However, all of those plans are contingent on Hafner's name being on the lineup card from Opening Day in 2009...which is less of a certainty today than it was even last May.