Returning Starters Should Not Relegate Chisenhall Back to Bench

Michael Brantley is widely considered to be the Cleveland Indians best all-around everyday player. It is hard to argue that. However, he may not currently be the Tribe’s best hitter. That honor may very well belong to Lonnie Chisenhall.

Yes, the same Chisenhall who barely made the Indians roster out of spring training. The same Chisenhall who had seemingly fallen out of favor with Cleveland management when Carlos Santana was converted to third base during the past offseason. That Lonnie Chisenhall, a 2008 first round pick, who was ever so close to have that fateful “bust” tag added to his resume, is hitting better than anyone in a Tribe uniform these days. In fact, Chisenhall is hitting better than most players in all of baseball.

Entering tonight’s game in Arlington, Texas, Chisenhall is hitting an eye-popping .361. If not for being a part-time player throughout April, the 25-year-old would be leading the league in batting average. However, the Chisenhall’s 144 at-bats fall short of the 186 he would need to qualify among the league leaders. In the American League, he would be running away things as Detroit’s Victor Martinez entered Thursday’s action batting a league-best .330. Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki led all of baseball with a .354 mark as of Thursday.

Playing sporatically, Chisenhall looked good in the season’s first month as he hit .362. The unknown was how much a product that was of not playing a lot and being protected by not playing against left-handed pitchers. Still, with so many other Cleveland regulars struggling at the plate, Chisenhall seemed in line for more playing time as May started.

On May 2, Chisenhall had a “did not play” next to his name. Since then, he has played in all but one game and started all but two. He has not disappointed. Through the second month of the 2014 campaign, Chisenhall continued to hit the ball all over the place, to a tune of .373. He even refound a power stroke that has seemingly gone missing in April as he hit all three of his home runs on the season during May. So far, Cleveland’s young third baseman/designated hitter has played all four games in June. He is hitting “only” .286 so far this month. It is now safe to call this a long stretch of amazingly consistent play from a guy who could never get things going in the big leagues the past few years.

Chisenhall’s chance to play on an every-day basis was surely earned. However, it has also come about due to injuries. Santana (concussion) and Nick Swisher (knee) have been on the disabled list since May 27. Santana is likely to return tonight. Swisher may very well be back in action shortly after Cleveland’s 10-game road trip that starts this evening.

During April, Chisenhall and Santana were battling for playing time and third and DH. Chisenhall had been working on playing first base and has gotten some looks there with Swisher out of the lineup.

However, when both of those guys come back, the Tribe manager will have to get creative on keeping his emerging star hitter in the batting order. Despite early-season struggles, Santana and Swisher are not likely to be relegated to bench roles. Both have track records that are too good to leave out lineup too often. Both hit over 20 home runs last year and were big reasons for Cleveland’s run to a Wild Card appearance.

That leaves DH, where Jason Giambi, a big time favorite of the fans and Francona, occupies a role about three or four times per week. As long as he continues to provide a big hit every now and then, Giambi is probably not going to be out of the lineup for long – especially since all he can do is bat.

Chisenhall’s time to play a lot of third base is probably drawing to a close when Santana returns. Despite Santana’s anemic batting average, he will be back as the regular third baseman. He is too good to believe he will continue to struggle all year. Same goes for Swisher at first when he comes back.

Still, Chisenhall has proven that his bat belongs in the lineup on a regular basis. This is where moving him to first wast a good move on the organization’s part. He can play every day, rotating at first, third and DH, while resting every now and then against top-notch southpaw. It will allow Francona to give a day off here and there to Swisher and Santana. That is especially important for Swisher, who is nearing his mid-30s and battling nagging injuries. A day off or two each week could benefit him as the season turn to September. Perhaps both can relax more, knowing other guys in the lineup are hitting and they do not need to try and carry the club all the time as they seemed to do last year.

No matter how Francon decides to shake things out, tonight should not be the start of part-time playing for Chisenhall. He needs to be penciled into the lineup nearly every day.

The fact that Chisenhall is hitting well for the Tribe should not be a major shock. He was drafted as a 29th-overall pick. He was earmarked from Day 1 as a future middle-of-the-order hitter. What seems shocking is how this has come out of nowhere. He is a career .266 hitter. Most likely, Chisenhall was rushed to the majors before he was ready. At 25, it is reasonable that he would just now be hitting his stride.

Chisehanll is not likely to keep up such a blistering pace and end up batting .360. He is not George Brett or Tony Gwynn. However, what the young player is proving is that he can handle Major League pitching and excel against it. More importantly, he is proving he deserves to play all the time. He deserves to play all the time even when the Indians are fully healthy in the next couple weeks. Chisenhall has developed in a very good hitter and may now be the best one the team has. That will not change with the returns of Swisher and Santana. Your best hitter does not sit. He should be swinging a bat on a daily basis.

Photo: Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

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