The Cleveland Indians have prided themselves in recent years by having a versatile roster of players, giving manager Terry Francona plenty of flexibility in his day-to-day roster construction over the course of the season.
There is a chance that the plasticity of the Indians lineup may have increased some with outfielder Lonnie Chisenhall getting work Monday in center field for the Akron RubberDucks while on his rehab assignment. He is scheduled to start again in center for the Indians’ Double-A affiliate on Tuesday night.
It was a move that caught many by surprise, as the RubberDucks have a pair of outfielders in Clint Frazier and Bradley Zimmer who could have manned the spot while allowing Chisenhall to continue regular rehabilitation work in right field while Michael Brantley played in left on Monday. But, after reports on Sunday from Francona that Chisenhall would play in right field on Monday and designated hitter on Tuesday, the story changed with the Tribe’s former third base prospect in center stage in the number eight position on the field.
“I’ve shagged all three outfield positions. It was fun to see something happen in a game,” said Chisenhall after Monday’s game at Canal Park. “There is a little different responsibility, things like that. You can never be too versatile. You want to be able to play more than one spot. Like I said last year when I moved, I’m a baseball player.”
As for his first game in center, he made one putout and backed up on several plays and made a clean field of a single in the top of the eighth.
“Right field is still new to me. Center [Monday] was something else on top of the pile. It’s fun going out there, running different responsibilities, things like that.”
If the Indians like what they see in the small sample size in Akron, it is possible that Chisenhall could be yet another option for the Indians at center field, where Tyler Naquin and Rajai Davis have been spending the bulk of the time so far this season after the suspension of Abraham Almonte. With both Chisenhall and Brantley needing spots on the roster in the near future, the Indians will be in a crunch and are already carrying four outfielders in Naquin, Davis, Marlon Byrd, and Collin Cowgill, while utility man Jose Ramirez has also eaten up a ton of playing time in left field.
Ramirez, Cowgill, and Naquin have each only appeared at one outfield spot. Cowgill has played all three throughout his career, while Ramirez is new to left and Naquin has only played center professionally, outside of one nine-inning game at Akron in 2014.
A successful experiment on Tuesday with Chisenhall back in center for the RubberDucks could also give Francona some different options later in games, when considering how he manages his offensive and defensive substitutions.
“We might be in a situation where it could be beneficial for me to play more than one spot, pinch hits come up, or things like that,” said Chisenhall. “Just being able to do more than one thing is helpful.”
Chisenhall had not worked in the outfield in a pro game until last season after his midseason demotion to Triple-A Columbus. After a quick four-game trial in right field, he rejoined the Cleveland roster as the team’s right fielder. After making 12 errors in 136 chances in 50 games at third base (.963 fielding percentage), he made just two in 93 chances (.989) over 51 games in right.
Defensively, he more than impressed, and offensively, the bat flashed some of the production that he had provided in years past. His Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) of 9.3, which factors a variety of components into a defensive runs saved statistic, was the 14th best amongst all outfielders in 2015, despite playing significantly fewer games and innings in the grass than the others above him on the list. When using the UZR/150 stat, scaling all players’ numbers to an average number of chances over the course of a season, his score of 35.3 was the second-highest by an outfielder to play more than 200 innings (trailing only Tampa’s highlight reel, Kevin Kiermaier, at 40.4).
It drew some hopeful comparisons of Chisenhall to Alex Gordon, the Kansas City Royals veteran who had shifted from third base to left field in his fourth Major League season and has become a Gold Glove defender at the position, winning the award from 2011 through 2014. What was much more noticeable for the one-time struggling slugger Gordon was that the position change seemed to key a significant jump in his offensive production, in terms of hitting for average, hitting for added power and extra bases, and providing more run support.
Chisenhall, a former first round pick like Gordon but of the draft class three years later, had failed to show consistency at the plate for extended periods of time, while his play at third base left something to be desired at times. Yet despite the pressures of learning his new right field position on the fly, his bat sparked again, hitting .288 with nine doubles, three homers, and 25 RBI in 54 games after returning from his trip to Columbus. Those numbers dipped some in September, when he hit .183 after hitting .405 in July and August.
He is 27 years old and entering the prime years of his career now. He has shown himself capable of hitting against Triple-A pitching, owning a career .295 average across five seasons of work at the top farm level, but has hit just .257 in the big leagues.
After going through a trying spring training while dealing with a pair of arm injuries, he sounded more than ready to contribute to the Indians lineup.
“I feel good. The bat speed is there. Pain free. Swinging at good pitches,” said Chisenhall. “All of that combined, I feel good. I feel ready to go.”
Chisenhall and Brantley each were back in Cleveland at Progressive Field on Sunday, participating in the pregame workout before returning to Akron to continue their rehab assignments.
“You want to be in the clubhouse. You want to be around the guys. You don’t want to feel separated,” he shared. “Our house is right outside of Cleveland so you’re able to poke your head in every now and then. I feel a little removed, being on the disabled list. Fortunately, Akron is really close. Seeing the guys [Sunday] and cheering them on, unfortunately it wasn’t a great game, but just being in the dugout is nice.”
Chisenhall should be the first of the pair to get a chance to start contributing to the Tribe’s lineup on Wednesday, when the club is expected to activate him from the 15-day disabled list.
Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images