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Thursday, February 26, 2009
30 Questions: Can Pronk, V-Mart bounce back?

By AJ Mass
ESPN.com

Thirty teams, 30 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each major league team.

Will Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner bounce back from their disappointing seasons?

Two seasons ago, the Indians made native son Drew Carey proud. Yes, Cleveland rocked in every sense of the word, finishing first in the AL Central with a 96-66 record, beating the Yankees in the first round of the playoffs and taking Boston to the absolute limit before ultimately falling in Game 7 of the ALCS. While they weren't the only reason the Tribe did so well in 2007, certainly a large part of the team's success was because of the combined efforts of Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner, who contributed 49 home runs and 214 RBIs while hitting .281 for the year.

Flash forward to 2008, where the hopes were indeed high. Again, while they weren't entirely to blame, the V-Mart/Pronk duo was far from dynamic. Their combined batting average dropped to .244, and the power numbers plummeted to a mere seven home runs and only 59 RBIs. The team never got on track, and after being 15 1/2 games out of first place July 9, the Indians spent the rest of the season struggling just to get back to .500.

Certainly, injuries are a primary reason that Martinez and Hafner failed so miserably last season. Martinez played through a partially torn hamstring early in the season and then continued to battle through elbow issues that arose in early May. With no home runs to his name, V-Mart finally gave up in June and underwent surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow. He returned in late August, but by then for both the Indians and fantasy owners, it was too little too late. At the same time, Hafner started feeling weakness in his shoulder from the get-go. Things got so bad, Hafner said on the Indians' official Web site, that even simple tasks like eating were torturous. "You'd go out to have a meal and your shoulder would burn just from eating," he said. "If you'd do it a few times, it would wear your shoulder out." That's not good. It's no wonder then that Travis appeared in only 57 games on the year, shutting it down at the end of May and only returning for 41 essentially meaningless September at-bats.

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So, what should we expect from this pair for 2009? Are the injury concerns behind these two players, or should we be prepared for another season of disappointment and inactivity? Certainly the early reports out of spring training are positive. Hafner is said to be ready to face live pitching in the first week of March and should be playing in Cactus League games soon after. Still, there's reason to worry. Hafner's 2007 output was a severe drop-off from his previous three campaigns. He hit just .266 after three consecutive .300-plus seasons, and although he did barely manage to drive in 100 runs for the fourth straight year, his home run output was his lowest (24) since 2003, in a season where he had a career-high number of games played (152) and at-bats (545). The fact that Hafner is used exclusively as a designated hitter certainly cuts down on the likelihood of a recurrence of his injury woes, but keep in mind he's never been used much in the field in the past. In other words, expecting a bounce-back to hitting 20 or so balls out of the ballpark is definitely in the ballpark. However, the glory days of 35-40 homers are much too much a burden for Pronk to shoulder.

As for Martinez, history would seem to be on his side. After a lost season in 1929, Hall of Fame catcher Gabby Hartnett returned with a vengeance, smashing a career-best 37 home runs for the Cubs. Rib problems severely limited Carlton Fisk's 1979 season for Boston, and fully rested, he rebounded with an All-Star season in 1980. Javy Lopez suffered an ACL tear in 1999, and while his defensive skills were never quite the same, his power didn't vanish, and he hit 24 home runs in 2000. All of these catchers were able to return from a lost season due to injury, and all were around the same age as V-Mart is now when they got an unplanned vacation from sitting behind the plate. With manager Eric Wedge promising that Martinez will be in the lineup every day, splitting time between catcher and first base to minimize the likelihood of a return trip to the disabled list, we have little doubt that the 2009 stat line of V-Mart will look very familiar to fantasy owners, even if they need to look to an unfamiliar place on the field to find him.

AJ Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.