With their first-round pick (29th overall) in the 2008 draft, the Indians selected infield prospect Lonnie Chisenhall out of Pitt Community College in North Carolina. Not two months later, the team sent its starting third baseman, Casey Blake, to the Dodgers in the deal that brought Carlos Santana to Cleveland.
Obviously, the draft choice had nothing to do with the trade. For one, Chisenhall was primarily a shortstop in college, and the Tribe was still deciding whether to convert him to third. Meanwhile, Blake was going to be a free agent at the end of the year, and the Dodgers were contending and willing to part with a good prospect for third base security down the stretch. But it was not long before Chisenhall was identified as the Tribe’s third baseman of the future, and while extensive scouting and projecting is always in the cards for first-round selections, the trade perhaps sturdied the magnifying glass under which he began his professional career.
The bridge to Chisenhall was a rickety one because the Indians never actually found a real solution at the hot corner after the Blake trade. Partly as insurance for an impending experiment to try Jhonny Peralta at third, the team traded for Mark DeRosa during the 2008 offseason. But they turned around and traded DeRosa to St. Louis halfway through the 2009 season. That year, Peralta played in 105 games at third, marking the last season in which an Indians player saw 100 games at the position. By the trade deadline in 2010 it was clear the Peralta shift had failed (at least in part because he had no interest in making it work) and he was traded to Detroit.
The Indians have suffered through a conglomerate of provisional alternatives ever since. The ill-fated and seemingly never-ending Andy Marte experiment dragged on through 2010, and over the past few years, when Chisenhall has not been cutting his teeth at third, the position has been handled primarily by Jayson Nix, Jose Lopez, Jamey Carroll and, most significantly (and nearest to the hearts of Indians fans), defensive specialist Jack Hannahan.
This coming year will mark the first time that, barring the unforeseeable, Chisenhall will have third base all to himself. And it’s about time.
Chisenhall hasn’t blown anyone away in his limited major league experience. He had an OPS of .741 (108 OPS+) over 151 plate appearances in an injury-shortened 2012, up from .699 (94 OPS+) over 223 plate appearances the year before. Interestingly, his career OPS at Progressive Field is .838. But the truth is, Chisenhall’s transition from minors to majors, small sample size, injuries (and the corresponding gaps in his exposure to big league pitching), and youth render his stats to-date largely insignificant. There’s simply no reason to think Chisenhall’s ceiling is any lower today than it was when he was drafted.
Somehow, coming up with expectations for Chisenhall is already a tired exercise; fans have been thinking about what he is capable of for so long that it’s hard to believe he won’t even be 25 until the regular season is over. But if there is such thing as an ideal atmosphere for a prospect to realize his full potential, the Indians’ offseason seems to have manufactured just that for Chisenhall in 2013.
Every Indians headline will belong to Terry Francona and Nick Swisher until the spotlight is pried away from them. All eyes will be on Mark Reynolds, Trevor Bauer, and Drew Stubbs. Fans will be wondering if Justin Masterson can bounce back. They will be thinking about what kind of year Jason Kipnis will put together. Lonnie Chisenhall’s first real opportunity to play everyday and put a full season under his belt comes fortuitously at a time when there is absolutely no spotlight on him anymore. For the first time in his career, he’s pretty much an afterthought.
But he’s the best kind of afterthought—the kind with great potential. Scouts have always been enamored with his swing, and while the numbers have not always been there, he makes good contact. Chisenhall can have a huge impact on the Indians lineup this year. I think he will, though I predict his greatest strides will come in the form of plate discipline: he’ll hit 20 home runs to go along with a .270/.325/.435 line. And so long as he remains healthy, he’ll finally bring some stability to a position that has been nothing but a headache since Blake left.