Since the Rays began contending back in 2008, they have never had the same primary DH two years in a row. Four of the five years, they signed a new player to be their primary DH, Cliff Floyd for 2.75 million dollars in ’08, Pat Purrell on a two-year, 16 million dollar contract in 2009, Johnny Damon for 5.25 million dollars in 2011, and Luke Scott for 5 million dollars in 2012. Floyd, Damon, and Scott all have something big in common- none of them were ever stars (they’ve combined for two All-Star appearances between them) but they were all considered productive and dependable players as recently as three years before the Rays signed them on the cheap and got solid production from all three. When the Rays tried to sign an established star in Burrell, it was a disaster that crippled them financially for two years. Could the Rays go back to the former method once again and target a player like Travis Hafner?
The past nine years, Travis Hafner put up an OPS+ less than 20% above the league average just once. The problem is that since playing in 152 games in 2007, Hafner has averaged just 86 games played per season, going on the 15- or 60-day disabled list seven times in just those five years. Other than a horrific 2008, Hafner has played very well when healthy, managing a .268/.361/.453 line (125 OPS+) with 18 home runs per 500 plate appearances. He’s a shell of the player who hit 42 home runs back in 2006, but when he has stayed on the field, he has remained productive. In 2012, knee and back injuries held Hafner to just 66 games and 263 plate appearances, but he managed a .228/.346/.438 line (121 OPS+) with 6 doubles, 12 homers, 34 RBI, and a 47-32 strikeout to walk ratio. A lefty batter, Hafner mashed right-handed pitching to a .241/.361/.437 line (114 sOPS+) in 191 plate appearances and was fine against lefties as well, posting a .197/.306/.443 line (130 sOPS+) in 72 plate appearances. But is there any reason at all to think Hafner can stay healthy? Hafner hasn’t even played the field since 2007 yet has still suffered through all those injury problems. It’s a pity that these injuries have limited Hafner so significantly because it’s clear that he can still play if only he could stay healthy.
Hafner made 13 million dollars in 2012. Right now, he’ll be willing to settle for a fraction of that. Would he be willing to settle for a contract like what Floyd received? Floyd appeared in just 80 games for the Rays in 2008 but managed a solid 111 OPS+ and 11 home runs. Hafner played in 94 games as recently as two years ago, and there’s a real chance he could put up better numbers in about the same amount of playing time. The most likely scenario, though, is that Hafner will get injured again. The 2008 Rays survived when Floyd went down thanks to the presence of Eric Hinske, Jonny Gomes, and Rocco Baldelli to take his place when necessary. If the Rays sign Hafner, they’re going to need the same type of insurance policies behind him. They can’t simply sign Hafner and hope for the best- they’ll have to sign another player as a minor league free agent like they did with Hideki Matsui behind Luke Scott in 2012. Wait a second- the Rays may actually already have that player in their organization, Wil Myers. No, Myers is not going to be DH’ing for the Rays anytime soon, but if Hafner could give the Rays two or three good months, Myers should be ready for the big leagues to fill his spot even if he does get hurt. The Rays have a need at designated hitter right now, but that need will only be temporary if Myers makes the adjustments the Rays expect him to make at Triple-A and forces his way into their big league picture. If the Rays are sold onto the fact that Hafner can stay healthy for at least half the year and Hafner is willing to take a contract that would guarantee him 3 million dollars or less, he represents a great fit for the Rays and could very well be the player they end up signing. The injury issue is never going to go away for Hafner, but he remains a great hitter when healthy and could give the Rays exactly the type of production they’re looking for from their DH slot.