By Craig Gifford
When the Cleveland Indians signed journeyman third baseman Jack Hannahan on December 4, 2010, it was to be a stop-gap or an insurance policy. The team felt young phenom Lonnie Chisenhall may not have been quite ready for the big leagues and needed someone who could man the hot corner.
Tribe management and fans of the team could not have seen what came next. Hannahan, known much more for his glove, than bat, found a bit of offensive life in 2011. This year, through the first 31 games, he is among the team’s leaders in runs batted in and batting average. Hannahan’s ability to bring in runs on top of solid defensive work may keep Chisenhall in the minors a little bit longer.
Situations like this were common for the Indians of the 1990s. With a glut of talent in the majors, some good minor league players never got a shot with the Tribe. Guys like Richie Sexson, Brian Giles and Sean Casey had to go to other teams to earn their shot at success in the big leagues. Giles and Sexson were not going to crack into outfields in Cleveland that had the likes of Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton, Manny Ramirez, David Justice, etc. Sexson was never going to pass Jim Thome on the first base depth chart.
The situation with Hannahan and Chisenhall is similar in some ways, but quite different in others. For one, the Indians still have high hopes Chisenhall will be their third baseman for years to come. At only 23 year old, there is a lifetime of baseball still ahead of him. Conversely, Hannahan is 32, nearing the end of what should be his prime years.
The Chiz Kid got his feet wet in the majors last year. He was called up last June when Hannahan hit a rough patch at the plate. Chisenhall struggled early, but was showing by season’s end why Cleveland has such faith in its top prospect. In his first go-round with the Tribe, he batted .255 with seven home runs and 22 RBI in 66 games. At Triple-A Columbus this season, Chisenhall is continuing to hit. In 22 games, he is at 4 home runs, 12 RBI and a sterling .326 batting average. His plate-work says he is ready for the big show.
Offense is not why the Indians decided to bring back Hannahan on a one-year, $1,135,000 deal. It is Chisenhall’s defense that needs some fine-tuning. His fielding percentage in the majors last year was a sub-par .918. It has improved in the minors this year at .940, but still on the low end.
This is where Hannahan comes in. When the two competed in spring training for this year’s starting third base spot, the thought was defense over offense. With guys like Shin-Soo Choo, Jason Kipnis, Travis Hafner and Carlos Santana expected to put up better offensive numbers in 2012 over 2011, the prevailing idea was Cleveland could get by with a defensive-first guy. Add to that a number of Cleveland’s pitchers are ground ball pitchers and Hannahan’s glovework was deemed necessary.
Hannhan’s field percentage this year is low for him. At .943, he is well under his career average of .971. He has had a few rare miscues, but still gets to grounders and make plays that many of his peers at the position do not. That said, the defense-first strategy was one that may or may not have kept Hannahan at third all year. Many thought Chisenhall could improve his defense and be up in the majors by midseason. Either that or Hannahan, whose 2011 numbers at the dish (.250, 8 HR, 40 RBI) were acceptable, but not real good, might go back to the hitter who struggled to bat .200 in 2008 and 2009. In both scenarios, Chisenhall would get his call up sooner rather than later.
Now, with Hannahan being a real threat to make an impact with is glove and bat, it could be a while before Chisenhall gets another chance to stick in the majors. That is not really a bad thing. Let’s say Hannhan can keep up his current pace or at least stay close to it. That could keep Chisenhall in the minors until the September roster expansions or even until next season. One more year in the minors to truly be polished and Major League ready will not hurt. At 24, Chisenhall would be around the normal age for a player to break out in the majors. Not every player can be Bryce Harper and break through at 19.
Even if Hannahan were to begin struggling now, it would be late-June before Chisenhall got his call to the bigs. One way or another, Chisenhall is getting extended time on the farm because of unforeseen circumstances involving Hannahan’s bat. He has not had to be rushed to the majors before being ready, a la Matt LaPorta, who may have had his career ruined by being rushed before his time.
This will not be a situation like the 1990s. Hannahan, no matter what happens, is not likely to be the starting third baseman next year. He is no Belle, Ramirez, Lofton or Thome. Chesenhall would really have to fall off for the Tribe to not be ready to go all-in on him in 2013. In the meantime, all of Cleveland can hope Hannahan continues to take the city on the best ride of his career and Chisenhall will be ready to go when he finally gets his shot.
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