Giovanny Urshela has not been with the Cleveland Indians for very long. However, the 23-year-old rookie is already making a positive impression. In doing so, he is looking to do what no player in a Tribe uniform has done since the turn of the century and that is take the reigns of the third base job and truly make the position his.
Ever since Travis Fryman left Cleveland following the 2002 campaign, third base has been a revolving door. Player after player has manned the position for various stretches. None have lasted long or successfully as the regular.
Even for a small market team like the Indians, the inability to find someone, anyone, to play a good third base for multiple season is an oddity. Yes, the Tribe is not often able to keep good players on high salaries. However, the team has been able to keep other positions fairly well settled over the years since the payroll began to fall out of the sport’s top tier in 2002.
Cleveland’s recent inability to settle the hot corner comes after years of seeing some very good third base play. The 1990s were filled with all-star third basemen the likes of Jim Thome, Matt Williams and Fryman. That followed an era of good third basemen like Brook Jacoby, Toby Harrah and Buddy Bell in the 70s and 80s. In the first half of the 1900s, two of the organization’s all-time greats manned the position in Ken Keltner and Al Rosen.
Yet, third base has held, vacancy, help-wanted and space available signs attached to it for the better part of 13 years.
It is not as if the position has been a total dead spot. Aaron Boone played there. Though, he was a veteran and only stayed in Cleveland for two seasons. Casey Blake was able to play a pretty good third base and carried an adequate bat. He was with the Tribe from 2003 until he was traded in mid-2008. However, the hot corner was his primary spot in ’03 and ’08 only. He played a lot of first base and outfield in between. There have been plenty of other guys who received shots at third, but never stuck. Jhonny Peralta, Andy Marte and Kevin Kouzmanoff are memorable names to play third for the Tribe. However, none lasted there for very long.
That recent history is likely the biggest reason the Indians gave the recently demoted Lonnie Chisenhall more chances in four years than most players get in a lifetime.
When the team drafted Chisenhall in the first round of the 2008 amateur draft, the hope was that he would be that next Rosen, or Thome, or Fryaman or even Jacoby. He has not turned out to be any of those.
Chisenhall was a yo-yo, going up and down from Triple-A to Cleveland from 2011-2013. He had some success with the Tribe, but not a lot. However, he ripped the cover off the ball in Columbus. In 2014, it seemed he may have finally figured things out, hitting over .300 in the season’s first half. However, the wheels fell off in the second half and he finished with solid, yet disappointing .280 average. The wheels remained off this season. In 52 game, 172 at bats, Chisenhall hit .209 with four homers and 19 RBI. The Indians had seen enough and called up their young phenom, Urshela.
Chisenhall was granted opportunity after opportunity to end Cleveland’s stretch of third base futility. He has not been able to take the reigns and his time may be up. If he is ever going to fill his promise as a first round selection, it may have to be in another uniform. He may need a change of scenery to rejuvenate a career on life support. Best case scenario for the Tribe may be for Chisenhall to hit well in Columbus and a third base-needy contender take notice and offer up a trade deadline deal in the next couple weeks.
For now, the opportunity to remove the help wanted sign from third base is Urshela’s. The rookie does not appear ready to let the chance slip through his grasp any time soon.
Urshela’s strongest asset is his glove. He makes a great plays and few mistakes to one of the tougher spots to play on the diamond. He has brought his defensive prowess to Cleveland, so far, turning in some nice, hit-saving plays. He has made only two errors for a solid .968 fielding percentage.
By comparison, Chisenhall’s fielding percentage was .963. His field was far better than it had been any season before, including 2014 when it was .931 and he committed 18 errors in his lone full Major League campaign.
Chisenhall worked incredibly hard on his glovework in the offseason and it could be why his bat lagged. He is supposed to be a strong hitter. However, his bat has lagged in Cleveland along with his defense in other seasons. The first half of 2014 was the only time his strong hitting really showed up in full effect at the big league level.
Urshela, on the other hand, is not viewed as a great hitter. He can be above average. In a complete season at Columbus last year, he hit 13 homers and batted .276 in 104 games. In 21 contests before his promotion this year, Urshela was remaining consistent to a season ago. He was batting .275 with three home runs. In Cleveland, Urshela has remained a solid. With the Tribe, he has batted .256, with two bombs, seven driven in, over 26 games and 82 at bats.
Urshela is not blowing anybody away at the plate, but is holding his own. He had a 13-game hitting streak that ended on Sunday. It was the longest such streak for an Indians rookie since Michael Brantley hit safely in 19 straight outings in 2010. If Urshela can continue to mirror the career of Brantley, he will turn out just fine and end Cleveland’s long search for a full-time third baseman.
It is far too soon to say Cleveland’s search is over. Urshela could well go into a cold spell for a month that prompts a trip back to Columbus. However, his defense is and will always be top-shelf caliber. That part of the game translates to all levels.
Given that Chisenhall showed no indications in about a year that he was going to find a consistent bat in a Tribe uniform, Urshela should get an extended look with the Indians. Barring a catastrophe, he should at least get the remainder of this season. Then the Tribe can determine if it is time to give the keys to the hot corner to Urshela or look for another renter for the 2016 campaign.
Other than Chisenhall, Urshela is probably Cleveland’s best long-term hope since 2002. Urshela was not a first-round pick, but was well thought of when signed as a 16-year-old out of Colombia in 2008. Oddly, the two have been in Cleveland’s organization for about the same time.
Chisenhall moved up quicker, being a couple years old. Urshela is now ahead and hopes to remain there. Perhaps he will finally fill the heavy void that has hung over third base for so long.
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