“Down on the corner”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com

On Twitter: @Castrovince

ImageIf, on March 27, 2010, I had told you that on March 27, 2012, the following would be included in an official press release by the Cleveland Indians, what would have been your reaction?

“Today the Indians optioned INF LONNIE CHISENHALL and INF MATT LaPORTA to the Triple-A Columbus Clippers.”

Not a pleasant one, I would surmise.

After all, two years ago at this time, the expectation was that these two guys were eventually going to be the anchors of the Tribe infield, once Chisenhall reached the bigs and LaPorta was no longer blocked by Russell Branyan at first.

Chisenhall was, of course, one of the organization’s top prospects, ticketed for Triple-A Akron and two years removed from the Indians taking him with the 29th overall pick in the Draft. LaPorta was penciled in for 500 at-bats, either at first base or in left, two years removed from the Indians acquiring him in the CC Sabathia trade.

The expectation, at that point, was that LaPorta’s Triple-A days were done, given that he posted a .917 OPS at that level the year before. And the expectation was that he would build on his initial exposure to the Major Leagues with an impactful sophomore season.

LaPorta broke into the big leagues in 2009, played 52 games and stepped to the plate 198 times, with the following result: .254 average, .308 on-base percentage, .442 slugging percentage, seven homers, 13 doubles, 21 RBIs, 99 OPS+.

Chisenhall broke into the big leagues in 2011, played 66 games and stepped to the plate 223 times, with the following result: .255 average, .284 on-base percentage, .415 slugging percentage, seven homers, 13 doubles, 22 RBIs, 93 OPS+.

Looks pretty familiar, doesn’t it?

Here’s something the Indians hope doesn’t look familiar by the end of 2012: .221/.306/.362. That, of course, is LaPorta’s slash line from the 2010 season — a season in which he logged 110 games (mostly at first base, after the Branyan situation resolved itself with a midseason trade).

What, then, should we make of Tuesday’s announcement that “The Chiz Kid” is headed back to Columbus?

Well, two things…

1. The Indians, perhaps drawing from their experience with LaPorta, aren’t sold on Chisenhall as an everyday player at this stage.

2. Jack Hannahan is the new Russell Branyan. Sort of.

Like Branyan in 2010, Hannahan is a bit player who is going to retain an everyday role on this club purely on the basis of one standout skill. With Branyan, it was, of course, home runs (he hit one every 17.1 at-bats in his time with the Tribe in ’10). And with Hannahan, it’s his defense at the hot corner — a skill especially appreciated when extreme groundball pitchers Justin Masterson, Derek Lowe or Roberto Hernandez are on the hill.

With LaPorta two years ago, the situation was actually a little more complicated. Branyan arrived to bump LaPorta to left, but then another veteran hired hand, Austin Kearns, got hot in left, and suddenly the struggling LaPorta was a bench-warmer, eventually ticketed for Triple-A until Branyan was dealt.

With Chisenhall, the situation is somewhat remarkable if you step away and look at it broadly (as esteemed Tribe scribe Paul Cousineau did in his latest “DiaTribe”): The Indians are, for the moment at least, blocking one of their more highly regarded young talents — a guy who already got that first, initial exposure to the big leagues out of the way — by giving what would have been his everyday at-bats to Jack Hannahan, a 32-year-old with a lifetime OPS of .675 in 1,347 plate appearances.

Amazing.

And it’s even more amazing when you look elsewhere around the diamond and note, as Cousineau did, that the Indians, at this moment, project to have three guys in their everyday lineup who were non-roster invitees in their camps just one year ago — Hannahan at third, Shelley Duncan in left and Casey Kotchman at first.

Hey, at least corner spots aren’t considered pivotal power-producing positions or anything…

But while Kotchman qualifies at first because LaPorta failed and Kotchman is coming off a career year (if he repeats his .378 OBP while playing stellar defense at first, the Indians will have gotten their money’s worth) and Duncan qualifies in left because, well… because he’s standing, Hannahan vs. Chisenhall was a legit competition. One that Chisenhall didn’t win, even as Hannahan battled a back injury.

The thinking in the Indians’ camp is that Chisenhall pressed too hard to win the job, resulting in his .205 average in 16 Cactus League games. They were pretty pleased with his D. I certainly don’t think the Indians were so wowed with Hannahan’s second-half surge (.321 average, .874 OPS in 121 plate appearances… all in a part-time role) that they think he’s suddenly going to reach his peak in his early 30s. Because that’s crazy talk.

ImageI think they just want to protect themselves on the defensive end while simultaneously protecting Chisenhall from becoming the next LaPorta.

It’s a simple matter of coincidence that LaPorta’s inevitable demotion and Chisenhall’s marginally controversial one occurred on the same day.

But perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned in it.

What the Indians don’t need — for Chisenhall’s future or their own — is for The Chiz to struggle out the gate and/or share or split time with a short-term solution like Hannahan. They need him playing every day, and they need him feeling confident in the process, not looking over his shoulder and waiting to be replaced.

I can’t say I whole-heartedly agree with this decision, but I get that element of the thinking behind it. If Chisenhall’s not ready, you can’t force it. He’s 23.

But I will say this: The Indians better hope Chisenhall tears it up in Triple-A, because a lineup with Jack Hannahan, Shelley Duncan and Casey Kotchman in three of the four corner positions is in dire need of some offensive upside.

~AC

4 Comments

Hannahan has been hitting great, ever since last fall. He’s a plus on both sides, until Chiz hones his batting and his glove. Indians made the right play without a question.

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With the type of pitchers we have, Hannahan was the only choice at this point. Need consistently good defense or Masterson will have multiple 1-0 losses again.

“Need consistently good defense or Masterson will have multiple 1-0 losses again.”

huh? howzabout giving masterson an offense with fewer .675 OPS stiffs, and he has multiple 2-1 wins?

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