Position: 1B Height: 6-3 Weight: 240 Born: 6/3/77
Hafner was drafted by the Rangers in the 31st round in 1996, out of Cowley County Community College in Kansas. A big guy with great strength, he was raw when drafted, but has made huge progress crafting his swing, emerging as one of the top power threats in the minor leagues. The Rangers had corner players they liked better, and considered Hafner surplus to their needs. He was traded to the Indians in the Einar Diaz trade this winter, and is expected to replace departed free agent Jim Thome at first base.
Throughout spring training, John Sickels will provide in-depth reports on 10 of the hottest rookies to watch. The complete schedule of players, position-by-position, will be released next week.
When first drafted, Hafner was a typical big slugger with a long swing. He had trouble with breaking pitches early in his career, and his strikeout rates were very high. But Hafner wasn't satisfied just being a home run hitter. He's worked hard to refine his swing, hone his strike zone judgment, and hit the ball to all fields, not just over the fence.
He can still be fooled on occasion, but is good at making adjustments from at-bat to at-bat. Hafner destroys mediocre fastballs, and isn't an automatic out against breaking pitches. Some people say he has trouble with plus fastballs, but this hasn't been a problem in the games I've seen him play for Double-A Tulsa and Triple-A Oklahoma. His strike zone judgment is very good. Hafner does not run well, and his defense is nothing special. But his bat clearly is.
Hafner has exceeded 20 homers four years in a row, while increasing his batting averages. His strikeout rate has actually dropped as he's advanced, an excellent sign for his future and statistical evidence of his drive to improve. His MLEs mark him as a .280-.300 hitter with 25-30 homer power at the major league level.
He turns 26 in June, so he has not been young for his leagues. On the other hand, it also means he is physically and emotionally mature and ready for the majors now.
Hafner has been generally healthy, except for a wrist problem in 2001 at Tulsa. It was sore most of the year, and eventually required surgery to repair a broken hamate bone. But he showed no ill effects from the injury in 2002, and it doesn't seem to be a long-term issue.
What to expect
Barring some sort of injury, Hafner will be in the Indians Opening Day lineup, replacing Thome. That's not an easy task, but the dropoff between Thome and Hafner won't be as great as some people expect. Hafner should hit for both power and average, will draw walks, and not totally kill the defense. He's a clear Rookie of the Year candidate, and will be one key centerpiece for the Indians in the years ahead.
John Sickels is the author of the 2002 Minor League Scouting Notebook, and is now working on the 2003 Baseball Prospect Book. His biography of Bob Feller will be published next spring. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with his wife, son, and two cats. You can send John questions or comments at JASickels@aol.com, or you can visit his homepage at JohnSickels.com.