An Early Handicap of the Third Base Competition

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Ever since Casey Blake was traded in 2008, the Indians’ third base position has been a question mark.

The future of the position is Lonnie Chisenhall, but the Indians have learned the potential dangers of handing a young, unproven player a starting position the hard way. Tribe manager Manny Acta has said that Chisenhall will have to earn the position, and while it is unclear if the team intends to bring in any outside competition for the job, there are a few in-house candidates who will challenge the Chiz for the starting job. And, surprisingly enough, they aren’t terrible.

THE INCUMBENT

That would be Jack Hannahan, the Opening Day starter in 2010. Hannahan is an excellent defender—he ranked fourth among AL among third basemen with 8.7 UZR as a part-time player. He has shown occasional flashes of offensive competency, but became more of a non-factor at the plate the more at bats he got. But given the overall dearth of quality MLB third basemen and the fact the Indians have three extreme groundball pitchers penciled in for the rotation (Justin Masterson, Derek Lowe, Fausto Carmona), the Tribe could do a lot worse than going with a all-glove, no-stick player at third base.

Hannahan’s biggest negative is that he’s close to 30, and not going to get much better. So the Indians pretty much know what they have with him. Hannahan can play other positions though, so he’s worth keeping on the roster as a utility player or even just a defensive caddy for …

THE FAVORITE

I’ve said a lot about Lonnie Chisenhall’s potential and ceiling, and I’m not backing down from any of that. Although The Chiz’s struggled mightily at times, it’s not impossible that he works out of them and becomes a capable hitter against both lefties and righties. Chisenhall is only 23 years old and hasn’t spent significant time at Triple-A Columbus. But that doesn’t mean that needs more minor-league seasoning: on the contrary, Chisenhall needs to work through his hitting struggles at the major-league level.

Chisenhall is basically a platoon player at this point, which could be forgivable if not for his defense. Chisenhall is a converted shortstop and is still a work in progress defensively. He’s still young, but he will probably never be considered an excellent fielder.

The idea of trading The Chiz is ridiculous, because quality third basemen are so hard to find, but the Indians can’t expect to contend with another revolving door at third base. He still has options, so the Indians have some flexibility with his roster spot if they don’t think he’s ready.

THE WILD CARD

Jason Donald must feel like the forgotten man in this competition. He was the odds-on favorite to win the third base job in spring training in 2011, then broke his hand and was forced out of the discussion by Hannahan’s hot start.

Donald will most likely be the Tribe’s utility infielder in 2012, and although he has limited upside, he has also had big-league experience and didn’t completely embarrass himself in 2010 (1.3 WAR in 88 games), his biggest taste of the majors so far. I don’t think he’s the best choice, but the Indians feel he should be in the mix for the starting job.

THE VERDICT

Its understandable why someone would rather have Hannahan’s sure defense, but I would caution the Indians not to go down this road again and give Chisenhall a long leash at the third base. I realize the Indians feel their window of contention is now, but the team has a lot riding on The Chiz’s development, and if he’s ever going to learn, he needs to do it against major leaguers. Lonnie has options remaining and I’m not against using them if necessary, but at 23 this kid needs to play a lot in order to reach his potential. It’s time to give him the keys and hope he doesn’t wreck the car.

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Tags: Jack Hannahan Jason Donald Lonnie Chisenhall

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