As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who has a chance to make the Cleveland Indians’ Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we turn our attention to the Tribe’s third baseman of the future, if not the present: Lonnie Chisenhall.
Background: The Indians took Chisenhall, now 23, out of Pitt Community College in the first round (No. 29 overall) of the 2008 MLB amateur draft —right after Gerritt Cole, who went on to become the No. 1 overall pick in 2011. He quickly earned a reputation as one of the most promising young players in the game, placing 31st and 25th on Baseball America‘s 2010 and 2011 top prospects lists, respectively, and inheriting the title of the Indians’ top prospect when Carlos Santana got promoted.
Last year: Chisenhall started the 2011 season with Triple-A Columbus and earned a call-up to the majors after hitting .267/.353/.431 in roughly half a minor-league season. In 66 games with the parent club, Chiz hit .255/.284/.415 with 7 home runs, 22 RBI, and 27 runs scored. His underwhelming performance corresponded with the complete collapse of his plate discipline: his walk rate fell from nearly 10 percent in the minors to less than 4 percent in the majors, while his strikeout rate jumped from just over 16 percent to 22 percent.
He’s still a work in progress at third base, but while he wasn’t at Jack Hannahan‘s level he definitely held his own defensively. FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference, and Baseball Prospectus all valued his performance between 0.7 and 1.0 wins above replacement.
Key factor: Plate discipline. You don’t need to walk a lot to be a good MLB player—Ichiro Suzuki is probably the poster boy for that—and the active leaders in strikeouts are Jim Thome and Alex Rodriguez. But you need elite contact skills to post a solid OBP without many free passes and impressive power to overcome high strikeout totals; Chisenhall isn’t exactly Ichiro or A-Rod.
Chisenhall could still be a useful player even if his plate discipline doesn’t improve—after all, he was last year—but both he and the Indians would probably be best served by Chisenhall starting the year in Triple-A.
Take out RotoChamp and you’ve got yourself a consensus: Chisenhall’s walk rate will climb past 6 percent, his strikeout rate will fall below 20 percent, and he’ll be about a league-average hitter, give or take. It’s probably not what the Indians were planning to see from him in his sophomore season, but it’s not bad a 23-year-old.
Best-case scenario: Chisenhall convinces the Tribe brass that his plate discipline struggles were a fluke of the sample size and wins the starting job. Given consistent playing time from the get-go, his K/BB ratio falls from over six to less than two and his promised power comes both earlier and stronger than expected. He starts almost every game and his improved defense makes Hannahan seem expendable even as a defensive replacement.
Worst-case scenario: Chisenhall starts the year in Triple-A…and struggles there, too. Even in the minors it takes several weeks for his plate discipline to get back on track, and the impatient, way-too-soon whisperings about his being a bust begin. Hannahan shows that he really can hold his own in the lineup, while one or more of Jason Donald, Cord Phelps, Jose Lopez, and Andy LaRoche proves to be a more-than-competent backup. He’s lucky if he makes it to the majors in 2012 at all.
Most likely scenario: The announcement comes in the next few days that Chisenhall will be sent to Triple-A—his spring training performance has only reinforced concerns about his walks and strikeouts. He makes it back to the majors by mid-June as he shows improvement or Hannahan struggles and gets the majority of starts at the hot corner through the end of the year. He might not quite live up to his Steamer projection, but if he wins the everyday job for a contending team he’ll have to play at least somewhere near that level.