The Seduction of Spring: A Meditation on Lonnie Chisenhall

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Lonnie Chisenhall is raking in Spring Training.  He’s put up a .550/.609/1.050 line so far.  He’s already hit two doubles, two homers, and one triple in only 20 at bats.

Oh, and one more thing: The Indians don’t really have an incumbent at third base—Chisenhall’s position.  Jayson Nix kind of stinks.  Jason Donald has never played there.  And Shelley Duncan?  Well depending on whom you ask, he can’t play third either.

So it’s not at all shocking that as Chisenhall continues to amaze us with his spring performance, we start to see a groundswell of support for him to make the opening day roster.  TD touched on this sentiment earlier in the week, and I’ve heard some similar suggestions from a number of Tribe fans.

And it might surprise you to hear me say that I’m not here to put that groundswell down.  Well, not exactly – I’m here to make sure that it’s coming from the right place.

First, let’s make sure that we’re not suggesting that Chisenhall make the team simply because of a hot spring.  The sample sizes just aren’t remotely reasonable.  Over his minor league career—about 1,400 plate appearances—Chisenhall has been a .273/.342/.456 hitter.  That’s pretty good, especially for a kid who’s typically been younger than most of his competition.  But it’s a far cry from the numbers he’s put up this spring.  And when we have to compare a sample of 25 plate appearances to nearly 1,400, which do you think we should believe?  I think we already know the answer.

Is it possible that this off-season Chisenhall has gone from slightly above average AA player to the best MLB hitter that the league has ever seen?  Sure, I guess it is.  It’s also possible that I’ll win the lottery.  It really is.

Even so, I don’t think that’s why people are pining for the Chiz-Kid.  Nobody really believes that Spring Training numbers mean anything, or least not much.  What people seem to be saying is two-fold.  First, that Lonnie Chisenhall might be our best option at third base.  And second, that if he is our best option, we should play him. Let’s take these one at a time.

Is Chisenhall the best option we have at third?  I really don’t know—we just don’t have that much to go on.  But let’s keep in mind his minor league numbers.  He’s never played above AA, so we’ll use those numbers as a gauge.  Which of these AA careers belongs to the superstar infielder?

PLAYER A0.3070.3910.4970.888
PLAYER B0.3110.3850.5020.887
PLAYER C0.3730.4320.6421.074
PLAYER D0.2620.3330.4390.772

Player A is Jason Donald.  That guy you’re already sick of and who was too crummy to be included in Cliff Lee trade.

Player B is Jason Kipnis.  He’s good.  I like him.  But keep in mind he’s basically Jason Donald (whom I also kinda like).

Player C is Kevin Kouzmanoff.  The guy who can’t really hit or field well enough for MLB at this point in his career.

And Player D is Lonnie Chisenhall. 

I’m not showing you these numbers because I don’t like Chisenhall.  I promise that I do.  But the only real information that we have suggests that he’s less ready to hit at the MLB level than the rest of these guys.  We must at least consider this when we start advocating that he be handed the opening day job.  He is really young, and really unaccomplished, and the facts suggest that he might not actually be ready for the Big Leagues.

Nevertheless, let’s say that, considering the dearth of viable options at third base, we conclude that Chisenhall is our best option.  Despite his minor league numbers, this is not an entirely unreasonable stance to take.  After all, none of the in-house options look to be so good.  Jayson Nix had an OBP of .281 last season, which is execrable.  Jason Donald doesn’t seem to know how to play third base, which could really hurt considering our staff led the league in GB% last year.  So we’ve decided not to allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good, and declare Chisenhall to be the most capable third baseman available to us.

Should the best player make the team?  This seems obvious, and to a lot of people it is: absolutely.  If we don’t have a better option, then Chisenhall should be our everyday third baseman.

And again, this is a defensible stance to take.  You play to win the game, etc.  But let’s say that I told you we only get to keep Chisenhall for a certain amount of time, and that after that time, he will be no longer be allowed to play for the Indians.   Would you use up one of those seasons before you could get Kipnis and Pomeranz and White and Weglarz up with him?  Would you play him in 2011 and hope to win the World Series this season, or save your bullets to fight once the cavalry arrives?

It’s not that I’m not seduced by the Spring Lonnie is having—I am.  I want to believe that he’s the next Carlos Santana.  I want to believe that he’s ready to take over, since we need him so badly.  I want to believe that he’ll be a part of the next core-group of players that will bring a World Series to Cleveland.  And I want to believe that it can all start now, without any more waiting.  I’m tired of waiting.

After all, that’s how people feel in the spring, right?

  • Scott

    I wish I was left-handed and could hit things really far.

  • Jackson

    The fact the major point of consideration is that the Indians don’t want to start the clock running on his FA tells you all you need to know about MLB. What a joke…

  • Jack


  • Lyon

    Who’s to say he’s going to be good enough to worry about his service clock? I’m more of the thinking that if you have a place to play him and you don’t think he’ll hurt the team, why not? Don’t hold a guy back b/c there’s the chance he’ll be great and may leave a year early.

    He can’t be much worse than Nix or Sweet Luis. If Chiz doesn’t play 3b, it better be Donald. I like what he brings, even if it’s not the prototipical 3b numbers.

  • 216in614

    i agree we need to worry about his service clock. its just the more strategic thing to do in the long run for the organization. keep him down no matter how well he plays in spring training and how bad jason donald is. find someone who hits .225 but is a stud defender and i’d be happy.

  • Steve

    Great article. Nailed every point and counter-point. Let’s see how the rest of spring training goes…

  • mgbode

    “I want to believe that he’s the next Carlos Santana.”

    so do the rest of us. unfortunate for ‘the Chis’ if he happens to struggle on his initial call-up whenever that might be (I think the Indians brass waits till September on him)

  • AZDave

    about the service clock… if you wait til June 1 (60 days/50ish games) to call him up you control him for 162 additional games. Has nothing to do with being cheap, only smart. Have patience, let him get some at bats at AAA and see what’s going on in June. Any other move is just a knee jerk typical fan reaction. While it frustrates me to no end when the Indians sign the Russell Branyon’s of the world. In this case, they are handling this exactly right.

  • Larry

    I agree on service time, I guess, but when you’ve established that you’re willing to trade players to cut payroll a year and a half before they hit free agency, does it really matter?

  • hans

    It’s not the extra year before free agency (all you would have to do is hold him down for about 12 service days, or basically two weeks in the season), its avoiding Super-2 Arbitration. That’s litterally millions of dollars saved that the oranization can put towards other needs.

    The GM of this team has to work within a certain monetary constraint, it’s prudent that they don’t waste money so that a player can get an extra half season of time on a ML squad that isn’t contending this year.

  • Narm

    I don’t think it is quite fair to call the owners cheap on one hand and on the other demand they play Chisenhall.

    He hasn’t taken a single at-bat in AAA and you would lose him a year early to have him start the year instead of Donald (who isn’t a horrible prospect in his own right.)

    If you don’t want the owner to be cheap, then let him make smart moves that don’t hurt the team and save millions of dollars. Seems people are more worried with the money spent than the games won.

  • Jon

    Re: super 2

    I think this might be a legitimate concern. Chisenhall might qualify as a Super 2 player eventually.

    But let’s keep in mind two things. First of all, it’s rare to be a super 2 player. You need to be really good and consistently in the lineup. I sure hope that Chisenhall is both of these things, but I’m not sure I’d bet on it at this point.

    Second, even if he ends up a super 2, we don’t lose a year of control. He gets more expensive more quickly (four arbitration years rather than three), but it still takes six years for him to reach free agency. If he’s worth keeping for six years, we’ll definitely keep him around, whether he’s super 2 or not.

    So while I’m happy to work his service clock to keep him from free agency, worrying about super 2 status seems both preemptive and prejudicial.

  • Frank

    A problem with starting him with Tribe out of spring training is if he spends the first 3 months hitting .180, looks lost at the plate and commits a ton of errors. Then what do you do? Send him down? Maybe hurt his confidence and he hits .220 in Columbus for rest of year. Then what do you do next year? He would have to start next year in Columbus again.