The Indians got a tough break this weekend when third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall got hit in the wrist with a Troy Patton pitch Friday night. The beanball broke his right ulna bone and will likely sideline him for 10 to 12 weeks, meaning this injury will almost certainly end Chisenhall’s 2012 season.
It’s hard not to feel bad for Chisenhall (my arm hurts just thinking about it), and obviously losing a player to injury is never a good thing. But just how big of a deal is Chisenhall’s broken wrist?
In the short term, the team honestly won’t miss Chisenhall’s production very much. Chisenhall has much more power and far greater upside than Jack Hannahan, but given his superior plate discipline and defense Hannahan is probably the Tribe’s best option at third base right now. Nor will his bat be sorely missed at DH, as Travis Hafner will hopefully be back in the lineup soon (possibly today) and Shelley Duncan has looked quite good in the interim now that he’s getting semi-regular playing time.
However, the potential long-term consequences of Chisenhall’s injury are far more serious. First and foremost among the problems this situation causes is that he’s losing three months of playing time. Experience is crucial for young players as they develop, and teams try to ensure that their most promising prospects get on the field as much as possible—that’s why Chisenhall started the season in Columbus where he would play everyday instead of keeping the bench warm in Cleveland. For a 23-year-old with just 90 career MLB games under his belt, a half-season of playing time is a significant loss.
Another thing to note is that this is not Chisenhall’s first major injury this year. He missed almost a month of action starting at the end of April when he strained his calf. Obviously the two injuries are unrelated and it’s not Chisenhall’s fault that Patton went too far inside on Friday, but such maladies have a way of accumulating and some players just tend to be magnets for them. I don’t mean to conjure up images of a worst-case scenario like Mark Prior‘s, but we could be witnessing the beginnings of a troubling trend.
Specifically, a wrist injury is the kind of thing that could can with a player’s swing. The sweetness of Chisenhall’s stroke is the reason he’s considered the Tribe’s third baseman of the future—it’s what’s helped him to post impressive power numbers without a typical slugger’s physique, and it’s the reason he’s still seen as a good hitter despite the complete collapse of his plate discipline. I’m not a baseball trainer (and there’s probably a multitude of good reasons why that’s the case), but just based on what the injury is there has to be a possibility that Chisenhall’s swing won’t feel quite right even after the bone heals.
There’s also the mental side of dealing with an injury like this. MLB players have presumably learned not to be scared of the ball, but on some level the memory of having his wrist broken by a beanball will be hard to shake the next time he steps into the batter’s box. This isn’t the first time he’s suffered a potentially traumatic hit-by-pitch in his short MLB career—he was hit in the face by a Carlos Villanueva pitch last July—and I don’t think it’s entirely coincidence that he’s since become overly aggressive at the plate. The last thing a player who already has to work on his pitch selectiveness needs is a trauma haunting him when he steps up to the plate.
But maybe the most worrisome part of all is the unknown. This was supposed to be the year that Chisenhall showed us all what he’s made of and took the starting job at third base for good. But he hasn’t. We don’t know what the Indians would have done with Chisenhall when Hafner came back, but the smart money would have been on sending him back to Triple-A until he learns to wait for his pitch. Jack Hannahan is more than capable of holding down the hot corner, but Chisenhall was supposed to have usurped him by now. And in that sense he’s clearly been a disappointment.
Let me be clear: It is way, way too early to give up on Lonnie Chisenhall. He’s already a serviceable option at the hot corner, and if he can sustain his newfound power he’ll be a fixture in the middle of the order for years to come. But the reality is that the Indians will head into Spring Training 2013 without knowing what to expect from him. If he once again loses the Opening Day starting job to Hannahan—and now that he’s missing a half-season of potential progress that seems like the most likely outcome—then we’re talking about an 24-year-old player who two years after his debut has failed to latch onto the team for good. And that’s when you start to worry.
At the risk of sounding insensitive, the Indians won’t miss Lonnie Chisenhall’s production too much this year—third base and DH will be in better (or at least equally capable) hands with Hannahan and Hafner. But the lost experience and possible discomfort may impede him in the future, and when combined with his slower-than-expected developmental progress Chisenhall’s broken wrist could end up to be a serious problem down the road.