Is It Lopey Time, Yet?
By Bob Toth
The Cleveland Indians have not followed the usual protocol at the hot corner for the last few years. Historically, the prototypical third baseman has possessed an average bat with some good pop and is a decent defender with an above-average arm. For fans of recent Indians’ history, think early Jim Thome, Matt Williams, Travis Fryman, and even Casey Blake. Over the last several seasons, the Indians have utilized lighter-hitting corner infielders, better known for their gloves and arms than their bats.
This year is no exception. Tribe third basemen are batting a collective .268, accounting for just seven home runs.
Jack Hannahan has been the incumbent third baseman on the team since beating out Jason Donald for the role during spring training in 2011. He has become a fan favorite for his spectacular defensive plays and his ability to make the clutch hit.
Hannahan started the year strong, hitting a three-run home run in the season opener. Power from Hannahan is not the expectation though, as can be seen by his three home runs on the season. For much of the first month and a half, he faired much better at the plate than other times throughout his career, batting between .280 and .300. For a guy who made the team based on his glove work, it was an added benefit that he was hitting as well as he was.
In the middle of May, Hannahan began to struggle with a series of injuries. A sore back held him out of the lineup for eleven games, but he was never placed on the disabled list. After returning in a 14-7 loss to Chicago on May 26, he was shelved again, this time placed on the disabled list with a strained left calf. He would miss another 16 games.
Since his injuries began, Hannahan’s average has steadily dropped by 40 points. After a span in mid-May that saw him put together three consecutive two-hit games, Hannahan has batted .153. In these 19 games, he has driven in just two runs. He has struggled mightily against left-handed pitchers, batting .157. In 2011, for comparison’s sake, he batted .296 against lefties.
The defensive side of his game has not been exempt from his difficulties this year either. His fielding percentage is at a career low. He has already committed seven errors on the season, two more than he made during the entire 2011 campaign.
The Indians had hoped to get a surge of offense when they called up 23-year-old third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall from AAA Columbus on May 28 to replace the injured Hannahan. Even though Hannahan was expected to just miss a couple of weeks, the additional placement of designated hitter Travis Hafner on the disabled list with a right knee injury ensured that Chisenhall would get an extended look at the major league level.
Chisenhall was hitting the ball well at the time of the call up from Columbus. In 28 games, he was batting .324 with four home runs and 17 runs batted in. His walk numbers were still very low, with just four in 119 plate appearances.
In his first game of the 2012 season, he gave fans something to cheer about, hitting a line drive home run to right field to start a five-run rally in the third inning of an 8-5 win against Kansas City. Three games
later, he hit his second homer of the season and had three hits in a victory overMinnesota. Suddenly, it looked as though the third baseman of the future was in the present.
On June 29 in Baltimore, Chisenhall’s season was harshly and painfully interrupted. With one out in the top of the fifth, he was hit in the right arm by an 0-2 pitch from reliever Troy Patton. Chisenhall would leave the game, and afterwards the team would reveal that he fractured his right ulna bone in his forearm and would undergo surgery that would sideline him for ten to twelve weeks. He had started 13 games at third base and another six at DH and was hitting .278 with three homers and nine RBI in 24 games at the time of the injury.
As the Indians approach the All-Star break, they really must take a solid look at Jose Lopez at third if they are not going to look outside of the organization for help offensively at the hot corner.
The 28-year-old Lopez joined the Indians on December 16, 2011 with the hopes of breaking camp with the team and was able to do so with a strong showing in the 2012 spring training. The veteran, entering his ninth big league season, came toClevelandafter stops inSeattle,Colorado, andFlorida. He was an All-Star for the Mariners in 2006 at the age of 22, hitting .282 with ten homers and 79 RBI. He would mash a career-best 25 home runs and 96 RBI in 2009, batting .272. His offensive numbers in 2010 steadily declined, and with a career-high 18 errors at his new third base position, the Mariners moved him on toColoradoin a trade. Splitting the 2011 season betweenColoradoandFlorida, Lopez hit just .216 with eight home runs.
He got few opportunities to show what he could still do in the majors at the start of the 2012 season. Getting three starts at first base, one at third, and another at designated hitter, Lopez played in just five of the team’s first 17 games. He got a hit in four of those five games, but he hit just .190. Two of the four hits he had were for extra bases, but manager Manny Acta could not seem to find a way to get Lopez into the lineup regularly. On May 1st, he was designated for assignment to make room for Johnny Damon on the roster. He was outrighted to Columbus on May 3.
Lopez joined the Clippers’ lineup and showed the Indians that he still had something left to contribute. In the six games that followed at AAA, he hit, and hit, and hit. In 23 at bats, he strung together eight singles and four doubles, batting .522 while driving in four. He primarily played third base.
By May 12, Lopez’s contract was purchased from Columbus and he rejoined the Indians. He got a hit in each of his first ten starts back with the club while exclusively playing third base. He drove in twelve runs in his partial month of action in May, with six extra-base hits in 16 starts. He put together another long hitting streak, this one over an eight-game stretch between May 27th and June 7th.
From June 10-23, Lopez struggled with just three hits in 31 at bats, dropping his average down to its lowest mark in June, but has turned it back around in a hurry. In his last ten games, he has knocked in seven runs on 14 hits, batting .438. On June 30th, he had a career-high five hits in an 11-5 win overBaltimore.
Since his recall, he has hit a steady .285, increasing his season average to .272. Fifteen of his 17 extra-base hits and 24 of his 27 RBI have occurred in this time. He has been equally effective against lefty and righty pitchers, hitting between .270 and .275.
Lopez could be an internal solution already on the 25-man roster for the Indians. With Hannahan struggling so much at the dish, keeping a hotter bat like Lopez’s in the lineup could help maintain the offense that has combated consistency issues throughout the year. If Acta does not want to commit to Lopez as a full-time third baseman, he needs to find a way to inject him into the mix more at DH or first base to spell left-handed hitters Hafner and Casey Kotchman against lefty starters. He has shown in the past that he had the makings of a reliable major league ballplayer, and now, in these weeks leading up to the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline, is the perfect opportunity to see what this low-risk winter acquisition can do. He has shown an ability to add pop to the lineup from the right side of the plate, and would shore up a third base position that has been devoid of offense for weeks. It is “#LopeyTime”.
Photo: John Grieshop/Getty Images