When Lonnie Chisenhall was called up to the big leagues in late June 2011, he was perceived as the future third baseman of the Cleveland Indians.
When that future may actually be, if ever, still remains a question. After two and a half seasons of platoons and opportunities squandered, Chisenhall’s role and future is as unclear today as it has ever been. Tuesday, Indians manager Terry Francona announced Carlos Santana had earned the right to play third base during the season, yet Chisenhall would make the Opening Day roster.
“Carlos (Santana) is going to play third,” Francona told the media in his daily press conference. “To be honest with you, I don’t have a crystal ball. I’m not sure you really need to have one.
“At the beginning of spring training, I said I thought we could be the best team with Carlos and Lonnie on it. I’m not exactly sure how that will play itself out. I don’t know if anybody really is.”
Reports that Santana has “won” the third base job seem a bit presumptuous. Francona was quickly clear to leave each player’s role undefined. Santana will play third base, but how much remains to be seen. Santana will also serve as the backup catcher. Chisenhall does seem to have taken the back seat, however, being told by management to be ready for any role.
“It’s up in the air,” said Chisenhall to The Plain Dealer’s Paul Hoynes. “They told me whatever they ask me to do, be ready. Whether it’s pinch run, play defense, start, play left field, right field.
“It’s one of those situations. When I get in there, I have to make the most of my opportunities.”
It sounds simple enough for Chisenhall, make the most of his opportunities. The problem, however, is that Chisenhall is in this exact situation because he has not made the most of opportunities over the last two and a half seasons. In 2011, Chisenhall could not take the job from Jack Hannahan. In 2012, he couldn’t seize the full-time job from Hannahan and Jose Lopez while last season Francona gave Chisenhall the job out of spring training only to have to option him to Triple-A Columbus in mid-May and play Mark Reynolds at third base instead. Reynolds had played just 15 games at third base the season before and was deemed an emergency option when the team left spring training.
Chisenhall, the former first round pick in the 2008 First Year Player Draft, hasn’t exactly had to battle Brooks Robinson or Mike Schmidt for the Tribe’s hot corner spot. The organization has given him ample opportunities to seize the spot and become a regular in the starting lineup in each of the last three seasons. Chisenhall’s lack of plate awareness, low on-base percentage and suspect defense has always hindered his ability to take the spot from his competition.
Upon learning Yan Gomes would be the starting catcher in 2014, Santana approached the team about the possibility of playing third base last fall and began taking ground balls in December. Santana has not played third base at any level since 2008, and has not played the position regularly since 2006. He’s never played a professional game of third base above the High-A level and he’s never played a game of third base with the Indians organization.
Yet, Santana has progressed enough since December to earn at least some of Chisenhall’s playing time. Santana has been average-to-below-average defensively at both catcher and first base during his career. It’s safe to assume he’ll be below average at third base, too, but his offense in the middle of the order is enough to let the experiment continue out of spring training and into regular season games—games that count in the standings.
So Chisenhall begins another season with an undefined role. Of the third base options on the roster, Chisenhall isn’t the best at any major role. If Santana plays an adequate third base, his offensive prowess will keep him in the lineup at the hot corner. In a close game situation when defense is necessary, it’s likely Mike Aviles will be a late-inning replacement. Chisenhall has hit just .194 against big league, left-handed pitchers, so his role continues to be limited. He’s not a defensive option or bat off the bench against a southpaw.
Instead, Chisenhall is “Santana-insurance,” early in the season. Santana’s third base progress will continue to be monitored, for sure. He’s certainly not a finished product. The more he plays there, and plays well, it seems he’ll get even more opportunity. It’s the same formula for success that Chisenhall has never been able to succeed in. Now, Chisenhall finds himself in the Hannahan-Lopez-Reynolds role, waiting for the first option to falter. If Santana struggles defensively, Chisenhall will see more playing time, but if Santana seizes the job Chisenhall never could, there may no longer be a long-term role for Chisenhall with the Tribe. Francona likes a bench full of versatile players, able to fill many roles when called upon. That’s not exactly Chisenhall.
For now, Chisenhall will assume his, “be ready for anything,” role but how long that lasts is even unclear. Michael Bourn and Jason Giambi will begin the season on the disabled list, but are able to be activated on April 5. How long they’ll actually stay on the disabled list is still unclear, but the Indians will have to shuffle their roster when each are activated.
If Santana continues to grow and thrive at third base, it’s likely Chisenhall will return to Triple-A—again—at some point this spring, where he’s a career .305 hitter, with a .374 on-base percentage. It seems he has little to prove at the minor league level. Still at just 25-years old, Chisenhall could become the Indians top trade piece this summer if the organization is looking to strengthen their roster for a playoff push. In some regards, it now seems unbelievable the Indians and fans scoffed at the Cubs’ request for Chisenhall for Matt Garza last July. A trade almost no one would have made nine months ago, now seems like a deal no Tribesman would turn away.
It’s not likely Chisenhall would still garner the same value, but a change of scenery may be the best opportunity and role for both he and the Indians.
Photo: Jordan Bastian/MLB.com