Prospect Retro: Travis Hafner
Travis Hafner was drafted by the Texas Rangers in the 31st round of the 1996 draft, out of Cowley County Community College in Kansas. He was a draft-and-follow guy and didn't sign until the following spring. Assigned to the Gulf Coast League Rangers, he did OK in his pro debut, hitting .286/.374/.439 with 14 doubles in 55 games. But it was rookie ball, and while his performance was good, it wasn't spectacular. He'd rate as a Grade C prospect at that point, with intriguing power potential but needing to prove he could carry it forward against more advanced pitching.
Hafner moved up to Savannah in the Sally League in 1998, where he hit just .237 in 123 games. He did knock 16 homers and draw 68 walks, but he struck out 139 times in 405 at-bats. He was originally a third baseman, but the Rangers switched him to first base during the year due to lack of range. At this point, his best attributes were power and walk rate, but his strikeout rate was very high and his batting average was low. Grade C.
Savannah was Hafner's destination once again in 1999. He did much better this time, hitting .292/.387/.546, with 28 homers, 30 doubles, 111 RBI, and 67 walks. However, he was repeating the league, and he fanned 151 times in 480 at-bats. His power was well-respected but there was still skepticism among scouts about how much contact he'd make against quality breaking balls and changeups. I gave him a Grade C in the 2000 book, noting that he had potential but that it was unclear if he would do as well at higher levels.
The Rangers promoted Hafner to the Florida State League in 2000, where he hit .346/.447/.580 for Charlotte, with 34 doubles, 22 homers, 109 RBI, 67 walks, and 86 strikeouts. Stunning performance, and note the gigantic drop in his strikeout rate. I raised his grade to C+ in the '01 book, which seems much too low in retrospect. I was concerned that it was his third season in Class A, and at age 23 he wasn't young for a three-peat at that level. Nowadays I would probably have gone up to Grade B given the dramatic drop in his strikeouts.
A wrist injury cost Hafner about 40% of the 2001 season, but he did well for Double-A Tulsa when healthy, hitting .282/.396/.545 with 20 homers in 323 at-bats. He drew 59 walks against 82 strikeouts. I raised him to Grade B-. At this point, the doubts now were about defense, and finding a position as the Rangers had a logjam at his position. I also continued to hear doubts about his ability against higher-level breaking balls and changeups.
Hafner was healthy in 2002 and had a massive season in Triple-A, hitting .342/.463/.559 for Oklahoma with 21 homers, 79 walks, and 76 strikeouts in 401 at-bats. His plate discipline was excellent, and he'd shown that he could make contact against top-level minor league breaking stuff. I was finally convinced, raising his grade to a strong A- and writing that "I'm as positive as positive can be that he will hit, and hit well, in the major leagues." He was traded to the Indians that December (for Einar Diaz and Ryan Drese) to help replace Jim Thome in the Cleveland lineup.
Hafner scuffled a bit in the majors in '03, hitting .254/.327/.485 in 91 games. . .he showed good power but it took him some time to adjust to major league conditions. He broke out big in '04 however, and has been one of the top sluggers in the American League ever since.
His early minor league career was marked by good power production and a high walk rate, but also a very high strikeout rate and doubts from scouts about his ability to adjust at higher levels. Through hard work, he improved his ability to read breaking balls, cutting his strikeout rate despite moving up and hitting against better competition. He hit over .300 in '04 and '05, and will possibly do so again in '06....considering that he hit just .237 against Sally League competition in 1998, I think you have to be very happy with the way he's developed his overall offensive game. His current numbers are very much what you'd expect based on his 2002 MLE at Triple-A Oklahoma, but I think it clear that Hafner has exceeded even what optimists thought possible back in '97 and '98.
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