December 17, 2014

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Time to worry about Sabathia

CLEVELAND — The Indians are well on their way to locking up all of their core players to long-term contracts, but they still have one remaining — and it’s a big one.
On Thursday, Cleveland announced a contract extension for Travis Hafner that will pay the designated hitter a guaranteed $57 million over the next six seasons and keep him in an Indians uniform through at least 2012.
With Grady Sizemore, Jhonny Peralta, Victor Martinez, Cliff Lee and Jake Westbrook already under multi-year deals, that leaves C.C. Sabathia as the final piece to a puzzle of core players that have fallen in place nicely for Cleveland general manager Mark Shapiro.
Like Hafner’s was before Thursday, Sabathia’s contract is set to expire following the 2008 season.
“I think we’re both focused on winning a championship right now,” said Shapiro, whose Indians sit a game behind first-place Detroit in the Central Division standings. “We’re fortunate to have C.C. pitching for us now and next year. There will be junctures to talk contract.”
Shapiro said he did not anticipate negotiating with Sabathia and his representation, Legacy Sports Group, during the second half of the season, but that discussions should open again in the offseason.
The 26-year-old Sabathia, who has spent his entire career in Cleveland, is off to his best season in six-plus years, making his third All-Star team with a big league-leading 12 wins.
He figures to command at least what Barry Zito got from the Giants — seven years at $126 million — and though ownership has recently shown a willingness to make significant financial investments in players, the consensus is that the asking price for Sabathia will be too high.
“I don’t get too optimistic or pessimistic on contracts,” Shapiro said. “I think that puts you at an emotional level. You put aside those feelings and concentrate on getting your team to a championship, knowing there will be time to conduct business.”
Hafner, one of the American League’s premier offensive players the past three seasons, came cheaper but at no bargain price.
The Indians agreed to increase his $3.75 million salary this season, while picking up his 2008 option ($4.75 million) and increasing that as well.
The 30-year-old Hafner, who has driven in over 100 runs while batting above .300 the past three years, will be paid $11 million per season from 2009-10, with the annual salary bumping to $13 million over the last two years of the contract. The deal also contains a club option for the 2013 season.
Hafner, who was acquired in a trade with Texas prior to the 2003 season and has become a fan favorite in Cleveland, passed on the opportunity to potentially make more money on the free-agent market.
“That was something that really didn’t appeal to me,” said Hafner, who recently married a local girl and has been active in the community since his arrival from Texas. “Really, I couldn’t imagine playing anywhere else.
“I’m excited about our ballclub. I feel like we’re going to have a chance to make championship runs for the next several years and I wanted to be a part of it.”
Hafner struggled to a .262 batting average with 14 home runs and 57 RBIs in 84 first-half games, with many pointing to his uncertain contract status as a factor in the lack of production for a player of his caliber.
“To me, that’s just an excuse,” Hafner said. “I come to the ballpark every day focused on the game. All the other stuff, you don’t even worry about. I feel like that had nothing to do with it.”
“It had to be weighing on him,” said third baseman Casey Blake. “He’s human.”
With Sizemore, Martinez, Lee and Peralta already in the fold, the Indians entered spring training with Hafner, Westbrook and Sabathia as their next multi-year targets.
They moved quickly to sign two of them, hoping the third is on the horizon.
“I think guys all know that they’re each making significant commitments to being here,” Shapiro said. “Each commitment is a step toward ensuring that we keep our core players.
“I think it’s an important part of what we set out to do, build a core of special players. To have the opportunity to keep these guys together in their prime gives us the best opportunity to win championships.”
Contact Chris Assenheimer at 329-7137 or cassenheimer@chroniclet.com.