Countdown to Indians’ Opening Day – 8: Lonnie Chisenhall

As Did The Tribe Win Last Night helps fans count down the days until the Indians retake the field in an official Major League game, we look back at some of the players who wore the Cleveland jersey with pride.

Countdown to Opening Day – 8 days

When the season starts, which Lonnie Chisenhall will take the field for the Indians?

Will it be the Chisenhall who returned in the final days of July from yet another demotion to Triple-A Columbus, manning a brand new position while hitting .288 with three homers, nine doubles, and 25 RBI in 54 games while showing some impressive defensive play (one error, .989 fielding percentage, eleven defensive runs saved) in his first foray in right field?

Will it be the Chisenhall who started another season at third base in 2015 while hitting .209 in 52 games with four homers, ten doubles, and 19 RBI while committing five errors to earn a .963 fielding percentage prior to relocating to Columbus?

Will Cleveland ever see again the Chisenhall who showed up strong and swept the leg in the first half of 2014, hitting .332 with a .396 on-base percentage before the break with nine homers, 20 doubles, and 41 RBI, or will it be more of the second-half Chisenhall from that season who hit .218 with a .277 OBP after the break with four homers, nine doubles, and 18 RBI?

The Chisenhall that suits up for the Tribe will not be the one who played third base, which is about the only certainty surrounding him moving into the 2016 season.

Defensively, he had put up better numbers at third base compared to the season prior, when he made 18 errors and had a -14 defensive runs saved at third base with range factor figures below league average. His .931 fielding percentage was just one of several uglier defensive statistics that plagued the Indians horrendous defense in 2014.

The Indians have held on to Chisenhall and given him repeated opportunities and clearly showed some faith in his natural athletic abilities by giving him a quick transition to corner outfielder after a career spent almost entirely at the hot corner.

But despite the promise shown in that two-month audition in right field to end last season, the lingering effects of his up and down career still leave some concern for the Cleveland coaching staff. It is tough to blame them, as his defensive issues at third have been compounded by inconsistent play at the plate and have led to time spent at Columbus in four of the last five seasons. There with the Clippers, he has hit .299, including an incredible .390 in 2013. But for the Tribe, combined over the last five seasons, he has hit just .257 and has failed to capitalize on the opportunities given to the club’s first round selection in 2008.

After the promising results from the experiment with Chisenhall in right field to end the 2015 season, there was much thought that Lonnie Baseball would be a shoe-in as the club’s right fielder to start the 2016 campaign. However, the same dark cloud of ineffectiveness has followed him into spring training and questions have to be asked once again about Chisenhall’s ability to be relied upon for a full season in right.

Through Friday night’s action, the five-year veteran had just one hit through his first 22 at bats, providing a very disconcerting .045 average at the plate. With just one walk to his credit, his .125 OBP does little more to instill confidence.

Chisenhall has dealt with right forearm tightness during camp, which may well explain the issues at the plate for him so far this spring. But the timing could not have been much worse, as the Indians outfield mix for the season was already the source of great question and ridicule, as the team looks to enter the season without its All-Star left fielder, Michael Brantley, for a stretch of time while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, and its center fielder, Abraham Almonte, after a PED suspension squashed the best opportunity to land in his lap in his professional career.

While the club had focused its concerns on finding a suitable replacement in center field, a job ultimately won by prospect Tyler Naquin, the team now has to have some concerns about whether or not Chisenhall will be the every day starter in right with Brantley looking more and more ready for a return in April rather than further into the season as once speculated over the offseason.

Those fears by the Tribe front office may have been resolved with the pick up of free agent veteran Marlon Byrd, who has performed well in a rapid camp tryout (.467 average, five doubles and two singles through five games).

If Byrd can make the team by the end of spring training, the possibility of a right field platoon again seems to be in the cards for the Indians. That has been the common theme for the team over the last several seasons and it looks plausible that Chisenhall could become a cheaper David Murphy for 2016, with a little more possible from the offensive and defensive sides of the game, presumably.

Manager Terry Francona used Chisenhall almost exclusively against right-handed pitching to begin 2014 after he hit .111 in 36 at bats against southpaws in 2013. As his bat merited more playing time and more calculated risk, Chisenhall would hit .294 against them in 2014, but that number dropped back to .241 in 2015, right at his career average. He owns a .261 average with 35 of his 43 career homers against right-handers.

The right-handed hitting Byrd, meanwhile, has a .286 average lifetime against lefties and a .271 average against righties.

Chisenhall was scratched from the lineup again on Friday and he was examined during the day by the Cleveland Clinic’s Dr. Thomas Graham, M.D., one of the team physicians who happened to be in town. Graham’s verdict was that Chisenhall was clear to continue game activities, and the Tribe’s outfielder was expected to get in some at bats in minor league camp Saturday afternoon.

While a two-month sample size of Chisenhall in right field does not make him the savior of the position, it did provide some promise that the Indians had one less concern to worry about heading into the season. Now, his extended struggles and on-going absence due to the forearm tightness could spell a disabled list trip and has created a domino effect of issues for the roster, including the likelihood that the team operates with a five-man outfield and a lighter bullpen than Francona typically desires (leading to the Friday news that left-handed specialist Joe Thatcher, coming off of a strong spring effort, would not make the 25-man roster to start the season and has until Tuesday to accept a minor league assignment with a June 1 opt-out date).

The Indians, in dire need of a quick and winning start to April for the first time in years and in what appears to be a highly competitive American League Central, need the good Chisenhall who showed up at the end of last season much more so than they need one of the handful of inconsistent veteran camp presences who have not claimed the available bench positions for their own. Chisenhall, for what it is worth, needs to find himself in the lineup and not on the shelf, so that he can prove that he is worth the Indians’ extended investment in him and that he is more than a Quad-A player.

Photo: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

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