Sammy Sosa's first inning grand slam off Milwaukee starter Zach Jackson set the tone for the Rangers…
Shaping the Rangers: #14 Travis Hafner
You could say that Travis Hafner made a name for himself on the farm long before he ever made a name for himself "on the farm".
One of only three current players from the state of North Dakota, his parents were farmers in the rural community of Sykeston, population about 200 - many of whom are members of the Hafner clan. His father, Terry, leased a 3,000-acre spread to raise sun flowers, wheat and beans, and worked the land with Travis's older brother, Troy. But the youngest Hafner never was a fan of farm work, and spent as much time and energy as possible on either schoolwork or baseball. While his Dad and brother worked in the field, he was behind the house, whacking rocks with a bat.
Hafner excelled at sports throughout high school, but in the summer following his senior year a scout for the Atlanta Braves came calling with an invitation to a tryout. Once there, he would make the cut and was one of two players remaining at the end of the tryout, but the thought of professional ball still seemed a bit overwhelming to the fresh high school graduate. The Braves urged Hafner to attend college instead, and he did, enrolling in Cowley County Community College in Kansas in the fall.
Hafner's arrival at the tiny school gradually transformed them into a powerhouse.
In 1996, his first year with the Cowley County Pirates, Hafner led the team in almost every major offensive category during the regular season, took them to within a game of the qualifying for the NJCAA Division I World Series, and was also drafted in 31st round by the Rangers. However, he turned down the team and opted instead to remain in school.
The decision would pay off.
The following year proved to be even better for Hafner and the Pirates, whom he would lead to a World Series championship. The Rangers would come calling again that summer, this time with a larger money offer, and this time, Hafner approved.
Hafner's first full season as a minor leaguer came in 1998 with the Savannah Sand Gnats of the Class-A South Atlantic League. That year he led the team with 68 walks and 84 RBIs, and was second with 16 home runs. A strong year for sure, but Hafner's name was surprisingly absent when the list of that year's All-Stars and Top Prospects were named by various scouting publications.
But one year later, exclusions from lists like that wouldn't be an issue.
Hafner destroyed the ball during the 1999 season, leading the league with 111 runs batted in and a .546 slugging average, while tying for first with 28 home runs.
In that same year, Ryan Drese was busy methodically working his way through the minor league system of the Cleveland Indians.
The 1999 season was a breakout campaign of sorts for the San Francisco native. He opened a few eyes, averaging 11.2 strikeouts per 9 innings, tying him for third best among all Class-A minor leaguers, and ranked fourth among Cleveland minor leaguers in strikeouts with 122.
But Drese was saddled with a massive setback the next year in the form of a torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered during an off-season workout. The righty threw some during spring training with the aid of a brace, but reinjured the knee attempting to cover first base in his first start of the season for Single-A Kinston. He would later undergo knee reconstruction surgery, ending his season.
The injury bug also paid a visit to Travis Hafner in 2000, when he was sent to the disabled list in August with a broken toe. Later, a December trip to Puerto Rico for winter ball had to be cut short due to a sore wrist. It marked the first point in his blossoming career that an injury sent him to the sidelines.
The medical issues for Hafner seemed to linger into the start of the 2001 season when a broken hamate bone was discovered in his wrist. Surgery was needed, and the rehabilitation time pushed the start of his season back to mid-May. But once healed, Hafner began his 2002 season right where he left off.
Now in Double-A, he batted .282 overall, but hammered lefties for a .343 average. He would go on to finish the year with a .525 slugging percentage to go along with his 20 homeruns and 74 runs driven in. The Rangers felt Hafner was almost there, and assigned him to the Arizona Fall League that autumn for some extra work on his defense. But the club was sent reeling when he injured his wrist again, and had to go under the knife to remove torn cartilage and scar tissue. There was no timetable for his return.
Meanwhile, Ryan Drese spent the 2002 season clawing and scratching at making a name for himself. Although he would finish the year with a 10-9 record and a high 6.55 earned run average, Drese would reach some notable achievements. Now a member of the Indians, he ranked second among AL rookie pitchers in starts, wins, and strikeouts, and third in innings. He would also record 10 strikeouts in a May 18 against game the Kansas City Royals, then a record for Cleveland rookies.
His battery mate that game was 29-year old Einar Diaz, a catcher who came supplied with an above-average arm and a questionable bat. Diaz had entered into the Cleveland Indians equation as a backup to Sandy Alomar Jr. in the late 1990's, but took over the starting job after Alomar suffered a substantial knee injury. From 1999-2001, Diaz was a superior defensive catcher, and while by no means a good hitter, he could hit for a decent average and smack the occasional double. But injuries had put a wrench in his 2002 season, Diaz saw his average drop down as far as .206.
The year 2002 also ended up being a banner one for Travis Hafner. He rebounded remarkably from his injured wrist and made the opening day roster for Triple-A Oklahoma. After a slow start, Hafner began scorching the ball throughout the month of May and found himself third in the PCL with a .342 average. The Rangers came calling in August, and brought up Hafner on August 6th for a game that night in Detroit. He struck out in his first at-bat as a big leaguer, but hit safetly in his next five contests. Hafner would finish the year with 15 hits in 62 at-bats along with a homerun and six runs driven in.
But the winter of that year turned out to be one filled with much change for both the Indians and Rangers. Cleveland had just bid farewell to slugger Jim Thome after 12 years and an influx of new, young talent was slowly on its way in.
The Rangers faced a different set of circumstances.
The club already faced a severe logjam at the corners with the likes of Rafael Palmeiro, Mark Teixeira, Hank Blalock at first and third base with Hafner waiting in the wings. But the Rangers had also decided not to re-sign longtime catcher Ivan Rodriguez, who was coming off three consecutive injury-prone seasons. The immediate solutions behind the plate consisted of Todd Greene, a prospect who wasn't quite ready in Gerald Laird, and other prospects who would never see the light of day on a major league roster. There was no doubt a new catcher was sorely needed.
On December 6th, former GM John Hart sent Hafner and struggling pitching prospect Aaron Myette to the Indians for Einar Diaz and Ryan Drese. The deal seemed to be a good fit at the time for the Rangers, who appeared to be dealing from a position of strength. But the long term results proved undeniably disastrous for the organization.
As a Ranger in 2003, Diaz hit .257 but struggled mightily getting on base, drawing just nine walks in 320 at-bats. His sure handedness behind the plate proved extremely flawed as well, as Diaz threw out just 23 of 79 baserunners. He lasted just one season with the Rangers and was included in a deal with the Montreal Expos the following year.
Ryan Drese struggled through the 2003 season with the Rangers, bouncing between Frisco, Oklahoma, and the big league club in Arlington. But 2004 brought about a remarkable turnaround for 29-year old, who won 14 games. His efforts won him the role of opening day starter for the 2005 season opener in Anaheim, but Drese's success from the year before proved fleeting, and following a dugout incident with catcher Rod Barajas, the Rangers stunningly waived him.
Success wasn't immediate for Travis Hafner, now a member of the Cleveland Indians. But he slowly developed into arguably the most feared hitter in the American League and has become the heart and soul of the Indians franchise.
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