Lonnie Chisenhall: Minor Problem or Major Solution?

Like most teams, the Cleveland Indians have a few holes in their lineup that cause fans to rip their hair out in clumps. Some of these holes are minor imperfections while other are more like full blown weaknesses.

For the 2011 Indians, third base was a full blown weakness. Fortunately, we’re told, things should be better at the hot corner in 2012 for one simple reason: Lonnie Chisenhall. But is he really the answer at third base?

In 66 games played as a third baseman in 2011, Chisenhall was anything but extraordinary. Defensively, Chisenhall managed a UZR of 1.3 but also committed 10 errors. Offensively, he was rather pedestrian, hitting .255/.284/.415 with 7 home runs, 21 RBI, and 0.7 fWAR.

If you’re unimpressed by those numbers, I don’t blame you. Third basemen are usually power hitters and run producers. His debut was even more disappointing because Chisenhall was widely regarded as the top prospect in the organization and one of the best young players in all of baseball.

Meanwhile, Jack Hannahan, who appeared in 110 games at third base, was a stud defensively, committing only 5 errors with an 8.4 UZR. Not to mention he had more than his fair share of web gems. Offensively, Hannahan had numbers that were surprisingly similar to Chisenhall, but with better plate discipline: he hit .250/.331/.388 with 8 homers and 40 RBI. But because of his superior defense and greater amount of playing time, he amassed 2.4 fWAR.

What can we take away from this? Hope. Hannahan was on pace for a career year for the Indians in 2011. If he had played in more games he would have established new career highs in almost every offensive category. Chisenhall, meanwhile, put up comparable numbers in the first 66 games of his major league career. Given his age and pedigree, one has to believe that those stats will get better this year, and he’ll also improve defensively as he learns hitters and the different field surfaces.

Chisenhall’s below-average production can also be explained in part by the circumstances surrounding his call up last season. At the time, the Indians were floundering on offense and looking anywhere and everywhere for a solution. Chisenhall was promoted with the hope that he would create a spark and ignite. That’s a lot of pressure to place on someone who’s never stepped foot in a major league batter’s box before. There was no easing him into the situation and letting him get his feet wet. Chisenhall was thrown into the fire and expected to produce; the high-pressure environment could explain how dramatically his plate discipline degraded once he reached The Show.

So is Chisenhall really the answer at third base this year? Given all of that, I say yes. He’s supposed to be the future for the Cleveland Indians; if that’s truly the case, then the future must start in 2012.

The youth movement is in full swing. One look at the roster should tell you as much. Why, then, should the Indians risk tampering with his development? Unless his plate discipline struggles continue, what good does another year in Triple A serve? If the Indians are serious about contending not just this year, but in the years to come, Chisenhall has to get experience sooner rather than later.

The Indians’ decision is especially easy given the talent, or lack thereof, remaining in the free agent market. Nobody really jumps out as an improvement over Chisenhall, or even Hannahan for that matter. Some of the third basemen remaining include: Wilson Betemit, Felipe Lopez, Eric Chavez, and Miguel Tejada. Would any of them be better than Chisenhall?

Trades? Again, the future is now and it’s all on the major league roster. In order to acquire an impact third baseman via a trade, the Indians would have to give up something of value or multiple pieces from the big league roster. What’s the point? All that would do is create another hole somewhere else that this small-market team would have to patch together MacGyver style with duct tape, bubble gum, and an old shoe lace.

The way I see it, the Indians should slot Chisenhall in as the everyday third baseman in 2012, which would allow him the opportunity to grow without inordinate amounts of pressure. With some combination of Shin-Soo Choo, Travis Hafner, Carlos Santana, Michael Brantley, Asdrubal Cabrera, Jason Kipnis, and Grady Sizemore available. to fill out the top two thirds of the lineup, Chisenhall can hit at the bottom of the order, get his work in and become the player everyone thinks he can be.

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Tags: Jack Hannahan Lonnie Chisenhall

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