As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who will be on the Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we’re completing our jaunt around the infield with the Indians’ starting third baseman: Lonnie Chisenhall.
Background: The Indians took Chisenhall, now 24, 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 in 2010. He has shown flashes of potential in his limited time with the Tribe over the last two seasons but has been hampered by recurring injuries.
Last year: After losing the Opening Day third base job to Jack Hannahan, Chisenhall started the 2012 season in Triple-A Columbus before being called up to the majors at the end of May. He hit .268/.311/.430 with 5 home runs, 16 runs scored, and 16 RBI in 43 games with the parent club sandwiched around a two-month absence from a broken ulna bone. He continued to show solid power (.162 ISO) and cut down on the strikeouts (18% strikeout rate, down from 22% in 2011), but on the whole his plate discipline was lacking (5%) and he looked a tad sloppy in the field. Still, the most promising sign we saw from Chisenhall was that he came back from his injury at all.
Key factor: Plate discipline. Chisenhall wasn’t exactly Kevin Youkilis as he rose through the minor leagues, but his walk rate approached or surpassed 8% at every level he played in—until he got to the majors. Chisenhall has just 16 free passes in 374 career plate appearances over the last two seasons, meaning he sees ball four about once every 23 PAs, and he isn’t particularly bothered by that.
It’s possible to cut it as a good MLB hitter without having much patience at the plate, but only if you have elite ability in another category. Ichiro had no problem getting on base despite his not walking much and Vladimir Guerrero‘s power more than made up for his impatience. The problem is, Chisenhall doesn’t have such a standout tool, so he’ll need to start finding his way on base more if he wants to be an effective middle-of-the-order hitter.
For an injury-plagued former top prospect who played only 43 games last year there sure is a strong consensus about how he’ll do in 2013.
Best-case scenario: Chisenhall takes every part of his game to the next level. He’s more selective at the plate and he bulks up as he enters his mid-20’s, pushing each third of his slashline higher. He becomes one of the best bottom-of-the-order hitters in the league and his improved defense helps him quietly rise through the ranks of the best third basemen in the game.
Worst-case scenario: The wheels come off the wagon. After two traumatizing beanballs he can’t get comfortable at the plate; his walk rate stagnates and his numbers fall across the board. Another injury or a challenge from Mike Aviles cuts into his playing time and in his third MLB season he still fails to lock down an everyday role. Then the Andy Marte comparisons begin.
What to expect: Chisenhall’s resilience last year suggests that he’s ready to put his troubles behind him in 2013. Expect modest improvements across the board as he stakes his claim at the hot corner for what will hopefully be years to come.
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