The season began with high hopes for Lonnie Chisenhall. He really had no competition for third base and the position was his from the get-go. He had two partial seasons under his belt and it looked like he was steadily improving and could possibly have a breakout season. Things started off poorly, and on May 12 he was sent to Triple-A after batting .213/.253/.351 with a 25% strikeout rate. He was called back up in June and remained for the rest of the season, mostly in a platoon split with Mike Aviles.
Although the season was disappointing, don’t give up hope on him yet. It appears as though he will have another chance at the hot corner in 2014 and I believe he deserves it. He is still very young, he has over 200 games under his belt in the majors and he will only be 25 years old for the 2014 season. Many players that have begun their careers at such a young age struggle up until their age 25 seasons. There are a few specific examples of guys that not only struggled young only to have a breakout 25 year old season and go on to successful careers, but their age 23 and 24 seasons were nearly identical to Chisenhall.
Nick Esasky was an emerging slugger in the mid to late 1980’s. He twice hit 20+ home runs for the Reds before he was traded to the Boston Red Sox in 1989. That year he flourished in Boston, hitting 30 home runs and driving in 108 base runners. The Atlanta Braves signed him the following season to bat behind Dale Murphy. Unfortunately, his career was cut off in the 1990 season due to a severe case of vertigo, and his played days were done at just 30 years old. There is no telling what Esasky’s career would have looked like had he remained healthy, but in his short time in the Majors he showed good power averaging 23 home runs per season over his last three seasons. The similarity between Esasky and Chisenhall comes in Esasky’s first two seasons. At age 23, Esasky hit .265/.328/.450; Chisenhall hit a strikingly similar .268/.311/.438. The next season they both took a dip with Esasky hitting .195/.301/.348 with 10 home runs, and Chisenhall batting a mere .225/.270/.398 with 12 home runs. The turning point came in the next season, Esasky’s age 25 season, where he hit 21 home runs and batted .262/.332/.465.
Tony Perez is another example of a player that came up early, and struggled mightily before figuring things out. He, like Chisenhall, received his first call-up at age 22. In his 23 year old season, Perez batted .260/.315/.466, numbers again similar to Chisenhall’s .268/.311/.438; the next season his on-base dropped to .304 and his slugging dropped to .381. Then he turned 25 and it all clicked. He belted 26 home runs, drove in 102 runs, and hit .290/.328/.490. Perez would go on to seven All-Star games, four times in the top 10 for MVP, and a Hall of Fame career. I’m certainly not saying Chisenhall is a Hall of Famer, that’s a silly statement to make at this point, but it is to show that careers can start poorly and end so greatly.
There are players like Pedro Alvarez who have followed the same pattern. In 2010 at age 23 he hit .256/.326/.461, and then followed that with a terrible .191/.272/.289 and just 4 home runs in 262 Plate Appearances. He turned 25 in 2012 and hit 30 home runs, then proved it was no fluke by leading the National League with 36 this past season.
Chisenhall has all the talent to be a good Major League hitter, the question is whether or not that talent will translate into results. He was inconsistent in 2013, having some terrible months, but also showed signs of what could be. In June he hit .270 and slugged .459 and continued that into July where he hit .271/.338/.441. In September he once again hit .270 and slugged a whopping .595 on the strength of three home runs in 37 at-bats. He has showed very good power at the Minor League level that should translate into power with the Indians. Hitting between 17-23 home runs a season is not out of the question for a player with his abilities. He needs to stay disciplined at the plate and choose his pitches a bit better, but I for one think he will turn things around and be an above average hitting third baseman.
This is not the time to give up on Chisenhall, he will be 25 next season and this is his chance to have a breakout year. If he succeeds, the Indians have a solid man at the corner and good left handed bat in the lineup. If he fails, he will not get many more chances and the Indians may be looking for his replacement after the 2014 season. For now the position is his to lose and he will have every chance to make his mark.