The Face of Frustration
Jonathan Knight | On 12, Jun 2015
You’ve gotta feel bad for Lonnie Chisenhall.
It’s one thing to get shipped back to the minors when you’re still feeling your way out in the bigs. It’s another after you’ve apparently “established” yourself as an everyday starter.
Either way, it’s a long drive down I-71. But when the parent club is essentially shipping you off to boarding school because they don’t know what else to do with you, it’s the Oregon Trail.
Which isn’t to say Chisenhall’s career is done. Maybe he can turn it around and fix whatever’s been ailing him for the past year, then make a triumphant return to Progressive Field.
More likely, he’ll hit the piss out of the ball in his Columbus sojourn, then come back and resume the .209 batting-average path he’s paved in Cleveland. And by doing so, he’ll firmly establish himself as the quadruple-A player he appears to be.
That’s an amazingly narrow niche – to be too good for the minors but not good enough for the bigs. And yet the Indians have an incredible ability to find these guys.
The most recent example, not surprisingly, is the player many compared Chisenhall to when he arrived in Cleveland.
It’s incredible to think that there was once a day when Matt LaPorta was the headliner and Michael Brantley was the player to be named later. (In retrospect, it’s maybe not so much incredible as much as it is hysterical.)
Even though he was the afterthought of the transaction, Brantley, obviously, is the only thing that prevented the C.C. Sabathia trade in 2008 from becoming one of the worst in Indians history. And the big reason why it was such a steaming turd was because LaPorta didn’t meet expectations. Or come anywhere close.
Though it wasn’t entirely his fault, LaPorta became the face of a miserable little era: four straight losing seasons, three with at least 93 defeats. Chisenhall had the benefit of playing on better teams, but, unfortunately, has become something of a symbol of what’s held these teams back.
And if you compare LaPorta’s numbers to Chisenhall’s, the similarities are eerie.
LaPorta in four seasons (291 games):
.238 batting average
31 homers, 120 RBI
.393 slugging percentage
Chisenhall in five seasons (397 games):
.253 batting average
40 homers, 152 RBI
.408 slugging percentage
In other words, given an extra year, Chisenhall only did marginally better than LaPorta.
Maybe the expectations were a bit higher for LaPorta because of what the Indians gave up to get him. Conversely, Chisenhall carried the weight of being a first-round draft pick. Both were given ample opportunities to right their proverbial ship, and unless Chisenhall can turn things around, neither did.
It’s easy (especially in this town) to slip into the NFL mentality of examining how a team drafts based on its first-round picks alone. Baseball doesn’t quite work the same way, and there’s much more tolerance for missed early round picks because there’s much more opportunity for later ones to surprise.
If Chisenhall winds up never resurfacing with the Tribe, that will close the book on a full decade of Indians’ first-round draft failures.
Between C.C. Sabathia in 1998 and Francisco Lindor in 2011, the Tribe collected 12 players in the first round of the amateur draft. And none even approached returning the investment.
Sure, Jeremy Guthrie proved to be decent (after leaving Cleveland), and Drew Pomeranz is still kicking around in Oakland’s bullpen. But by and large, the majority of this group never even made it to the majors. And those that did – cats like Jeremy Sowers, Trevor Crowe, and David Huff – made very little impact.
That’s – sorry, Lonnie – a Chisenhall-esque zip-for-12. Which makes the Browns look good.
To be fair, the Indians have had their moments in the draft. Jason Kipnis was a second-round pick in 2008. Cody Allen was one of those pleasant surprises we talked about, emerging from the 23rd round three years later. But undoubtedly, the heart of this team was constructed through trades.
Which is strange when you think about it, since successful baseball teams seem to follow the other two avenues to success: either you draft and develop smartly or go out and buy a contender in free agency. The way the Indians are doing things is the hardest of the three.
And now, ironically, they may need to swing a trade to land another third baseman.
Photo: Joe Robbins/Getty Images