CLEVELAND -- If you strolled in off the street and didn't know any better, what you saw in the bottom of the fourth inning at Progressive Field on Wednesday afternoon would have commanded your attention. There was Brandon Morrow trying to sneak a 97-mph fastball by Travis Hafner, and there was Hafner tearing into that pitch like a hungry man into a buffet. A couple seconds later, the ball was dropping into the right-center-field seats, 430 feet from home plate. The Indians used to see this kind of thing all the time. That's why they signed Hafner to the largest contract in team history. And because that contract takes up such a high percentage of their payroll, they hope to see plenty of it in the future.
But in the present, it was a momentary glimpse of the Pronk that was, the Pronk that preceded struggles and shoulder surgery. The Tribe's designated hitter is batting just .213 with a .692 OPS in this young season, leaving him a long, long way from "Pronkville." Still, the 32-year-old Hafner, who acquired the Pronk nickname -- short for half-project, half-donkey -- during Spring Training in 2001, hasn't lost his focus or his belief that he'll return to his old form. "I had a good spring and was hoping to get off to a good start," Hafner said. "That hasn't happened. But you can't really worry about it. You've got to continue to work hard every day. I hope to get going soon and be a big part of the offense." Indians manager Manny Acta had enough confidence that Hafner would be a big part of the offense that he put him in the cleanup spot at the outset of the season. Since that time, Acta has had to take some steps to get Hafner and his lineup going, be it dropping Pronk to the fifth or sixth spots or resting him against three recent left-handed opposing starters. Though Hafner is far from platoon-player status, the days spent on the bench were eye-catching. Because it was performance (Hafner is 6-for-37 against left-handers), not health, that had Pronk riding the pine. "Some of these guys are struggling," Acta said. "We communicate with them to clear their mind and tell them we're trying to put them in a position where you can have success. What we try to do is just match them up the best way possible and create the best lineup possible to get them swinging the way they can." Ultimately, getting Hafner on track is hitting coach Jon Nunnally's responsibility. The two developed a solid rapport last year, when Hafner was in Columbus on a rehab assignment following a setback in his recovery from a 2008 shoulder scope and Nunnally was the Tribe's Triple-A hitting coach. What Nunnally saw then was a guy who had developed bad habits at the plate as a means to account for the pain he was feeling in his shoulder. That pain had limited Hafner to 57 games played in a 2008 season in which he batted just .197 with a .628 OPS. In '09, Pronk played in just 94 games, batting .272 with an .826 OPS. Hafner came to camp healthy this year, and Nunnally, freshly promoted to the big league hitting coach post, became entrusted with the task of ensuring a healthy Pronk is a productive Pronk. Though Hafner was driving the ball to all fields in Spring Training, his regular-season performance remains a work in progress. "We're just trying to iron it all out," Nunnally said. "He's going back and forth through some things. It's just a matter of tightening up the zone a little bit, and getting him to stay focused. Getting him in a good, strong position to hit." Hafner has had some issues related to his footing and his balance at the plate, and that has, at times, limited his power. Six of his 17 hits this season have gone for extra bases. Some of the power loss is most certainly attributable to the noticeable physical changes Hafner has undergone in recent years. The shoulder problems affected his weight training regiment, and a change in diet caused him to slim down by about 15 to 20 pounds. Pronk has also had problems with plate discipline, an area he mastered in 2006. When Hafner was en route to a 1.097 OPS that led the AL that year, only 19.2 percent of the pitches he swung at were outside the strike zone, according to data on fangraphs.com. That number is up to 29.5 percent this year. "Your first thing in hitting is to get a good pitch to hit," Hafner said. "That's what's most important. Some days are good, and then you have at-bats where it's terrible. You may go up there looking for something and get the opposite thing, and you swing at it early in the count. You come back in, and you're upset. You can't do that." The Indians can't panic when it comes to Pronk. They have no choice but to remain patient with him this year, just as they were when the shoulder issues limited his playing time. Hafner is making $11.5 million this season, just as he did in 2009. He'll make $13 million in '11 and again in '12. And if the Indians decline his $13 million option for '13, it will cost them $2.75 million to buy Hafner out. It's an unmovable contract that weighs on what has become a trimmer budget. Pronk currently commands about 18 percent of the Tribe's total team payroll. "At this point, that's a secondary issue," said assistant general manager Chris Antonetti, who takes over the GM reins later this year. "The primary issue is just getting him going. He still has all the ingredients of what we saw at the end of Spring Training. He was certainly locked in for a couple weeks, and we just need to get him back to that point. It's still really early in the season, and there's a lot of time to get him on track." The Indians believe, because they have to believe. The past two games -- Hafner had a pair of hits Tuesday and the mammoth homer Wednesday -- will aid the confidence of the player and the team. But no matter what happens from here on out, Hafner has learned not to take the game home with him and not to get caught up in the results. "The '08 season was probably the worst year of my life," he said. "That year wore me out, mentally ... The game can't control your life. You have to stay positive and come in and work hard every day. There's going to be struggles, and you've just got to stay positive and do everything you can to get out of it. This game will kick your butt if you let it."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.