CLEVELAND -- Pronk dropped some pounds. That much is noticeable the second you see Indians designated hitter Travis Hafner these days. Hafner, who met with the media in the Indians clubhouse on Thursday, said he's lost about 10 pounds since the end of the 2008 season, bringing his fighting weight to about 250. When he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his weak right shoulder in October, Hafner knew he'd be doing a lot of sitting around in the month that followed. So he started eating healthier.
"A lot of it is just not going out to restaurants as much," he said. "We've been eating at home a lot and trying to do the low-fat stuff." Then he paused. "And maybe a couple beers here and there," he said with a smile. Hafner's weight has been a subject of conversation and concern among fans who have seen him around town this winter. The line of thinking among that segment is that a guy who hit just .197 with five homers and 24 RBIs in what limited time he spent on the field last season needs all the body strength he can get. But the 31-year-old man known as Pronk didn't seem at all worried about how his weight loss might affect his performance. He's much more focused on the strength of his shoulder, which, he said, is feeling better all the time, now that it's been cleaned out by the renowned Dr. James Andrews. "It's a night and day difference from this summer," Hafner said. "This summer, I'd do a set of 10 [repetitions in lifting workouts], and it would take three to five minutes to recover. Now I can just hop in between with no rest at all. Just in general, it feels like it's getting back to normal." Can Hafner get back to what used to be considered his normal production? That's the $11.5 million question, as the Indians enter 2009. Hafner will receive that salary as part of the four-year, $57 million extension he signed with the Indians midway through the 2007 season -- a season that was viewed as a bit of a disappointment, even though Hafner drove in 100 runs for the fourth straight year. The 2008 campaign was supposed to be Hafner's chance to rebound. Instead, the shoulder began bothering him in Spring Training, and the season proper was nothing short of a disaster. A light-hitting Hafner was shut down in late May and didn't return to action until September. His bat speed was noticeably slower, and his timing never got on track. "I don't think you can blame everything on the shoulder," he said. "There's pitches you know you should hit, and I definitely missed a lot of things. It was tough to get in any kind of groove where I consistently felt good for a while." The long summer rest-and-rehab process Pronk endured didn't do much to help the shoulder. It was at about 75 percent strength when he returned to the Tribe in September but it only got weaker as the month wore on. "You knew something wasn't right," he said. At season's end, Hafner visited Andrews, who recommended the arthroscopic surgery. The question was raised whether Hafner felt it would have been in his best interest to just have the surgery when he initially went on the disabled list. "I wouldn't have done anything different, because the MRI didn't show that surgery needed to be done immediately," Hafner said. "So you rehab it. That's what the doctor said to do. But the rate of improvement was so slow, and it only got to 75 percent." Following surgery, Hafner began physical therapy and eventually started to work out again at Progressive Field. Earlier this month, Andrews cleared him to increase his shoulder strengthening exercises, and, on Monday, Pronk will be ready to swing a bat for the first time since season's end. The return-to-hit program will begin with dry swings, then progress to swings off a tee, swings against soft toss and, finally, swings in regular batting practice. Hafner will go through this progression at the Indians' new spring facility in Goodyear, Ariz., where he'll report next week. "If everything goes well, I'm hoping by the time we start camp it's feeling pretty good," Hafner said. "Hopefully I should be able to start playing games once Spring Training games start [on Feb. 25]. My ultimate goal is to be 100 percent by Opening Day." Having missed so much time last year, Hafner was asked how long it will take him to get his timing back. "The thing with baseball is you're never sure how long it's going to take for your timing to get back," he said. "Every year in Spring Training, it's a different amount of time to get your timing." But Hafner, as expected, is confident he can get back to his old self, from a production standpoint. The Indians certainly would stand to benefit from having the guy who hit .308 with 42 homers and 117 RBIs in 2006. "I don't see any reason why I can't be productive," he said. "I think I can have better years than I've had in the past. I'm a guy everybody expects to be in the middle of the order and drive in 100 runs. If you're not getting that, you're asking people to do more, and you're putting young players in positions they're not supposed to be in." Hafner said he's not expecting any recurrence of the shoulder weakness that plagued him last year, and he's genuinely excited to start playing again. And he offered caution to anybody who thinks the weight loss will make him more of a stolen base threat. "Just because I lost a few pounds," he said with a smile, "doesn't mean I'm any faster." But the Indians sure hope he finds his form in a hurry.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.