June 2014

“This guy, he’s the real thing”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com
On Twitter: @Castrovince

There is always this hyper-awareness of roster construction among media members and fans during Spring Training, when teams are making seemingly gut-wrenching but, usually, somewhat frivolous decisions about the nether reaches of their roster.

It’s a six- or seven-week dance in which all involved pretend to believe that the last guy on the bench will determine whether or not a team has any shot at October, and, come Opening Day, it gives way to the reality that 25-man inventories are living, breathing organisms subject to change, especially as a club searches to find its footing.

Through it all, front-office or managerial or coaching types preach the same gospel:

The players will make the decisions for us.

Or the alternative:

Things have a way of working out.

Which brings us to Lonnie Chisenhall.

chisenhallHe’s been here, on the Indians’ active roster, from day one this season on the simple premise that the Indians didn’t know what else to do with him. He had a really nice offensive spring in Arizona, a place that lends itself to really nice offensive springs. But the Indians were committed, from the get-go, to giving Carlos Santana every opportunity at third base, provided, of course, he didn’t spontaneously combust the first time a sharp in-game grounder was sent his way.

They wanted to make that experiment work, because they valued flexibility with their DH spot. Chisenhall, though, just kept hitting, kept providing reason not to dispatch him to yet another round of Triple-A time-wasting. And Jason Giambi was hurt anyway, so, well, what the heck? They gave Chisenhall a roster spot, even as Terry Francona admitted he had no earthly idea how many at-bats he’d get.

“To be honest with you, I don’t have a crystal ball,” Francona had said. “I’m not sure you really need to have one. Things happen.”

Exactly. Things happen. The players make the decisions for you.

Chisenhall got some limited opportunity against right-handers, banged out 17 hits in his 47 April at-bats and made things interesting. That’s probably as far as the Indians wanted to go in their evaluation of the 25-year-old Chisenhall at that point: He was interesting again.

They had seen him flounder at the big-league level before, and there had been distinct danger of him being relegated to the dreaded Quad-A status in which the skills that flourish at one level simply don’t translate at the highest level.

A year ago, Chisenhall looked pretty lost, batting .213 through the season’s first six weeks after being handed the third base gig and earning another demotion to Columbus. There was a point last year in which he was so desperate to get his bat going that he grew a terrible mustache, a small and unsightly concession to the gods of non-shaving superstition.

Still, nothing.

“Then I was just an ugly .200 hitter,” he would remember later.

It got worse: Chisenhall hit .145 in August. And by that point, Francona had basically made him a persona non grata against southpaws. He did, however, see something in the Chiz in that season’s final month, when he had a .920 OPS in 40 plate appearances (not to mention three hits in the Wild Card game), and, really, only in retrospect can we appreciate that as both the start of something special and as a reminder that some top prospects simply require a little more patience.

So, yeah, to see Chisenhall raking at the outset of the season — and the raking continued on into May — was interesting. A tad on the hollow side for a third base/DH type, as 24 of his first 34 hits were singles, the rest doubles. But when your regular third baseman is batting like .140, who could reasonably call Chisenhall’s production hollow?

Clearly, this was evolving into another case of a player making the decisions for his club. Chisenhall was morphing from merely interesting to purely intriguing. He was asserting himself as deserving of everyday opportunities, and – this is the most important point – he was starting to hit for more power. The first homer came in that season-shifting series sweep of the Tigers a few weeks back. Since then, he’s posted an .809 slugging percentage in 75 trips to the plate, numbers of course augmented by Monday night’s historic 5-for-5, three-homer, nine-RBI breakout in Arlington (the place where, incidentally, the Indians were playing the day Chisenhall was drafted by the club six years ago). He’s shown the ultimate sign of hitting maturity, knowing when to be aggressive in the zone and squaring up the ball with authority and consistency.

And now the Indians are not only just two games back of a Tigers team that once looked capable of running away with the Central, they’re also faced with the dilemma that all teams hope to face – actual, earnest, non-Spring-Training-concocted lineup decisions.

Nick Swisher could be back Thursday, and he’ll create a roster crunch for Tito and Co. The easy decision – the one Chisenhall has made for the higher-ups – is to give Chisenhall the everyday opportunities at third and be done with it. Hopefully, there is still ample opportunity to keep Mike Aviles active in the mix on the days Chisenhall, Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Kipnis get a breather, but at this point is there really any reason to deny Chisenhall the stability of a regular position? He’s no longer merely interesting or purely intriguing. He’s just plain real (and he’s hitting .520 with a 1.236 OPS in 28 plate appearances against lefties, for the record).

This naturally proves problematic in the first base, DH and catching departments, where Carlos Santana has finally shown some signs of life (1.168 OPS in his last eight games, sandwiched around a concussion), where George Kottaras, surprisingly, has looked like more than just roster fodder, and where Swisher and Giambi hold veteran sway.

I don’t suspect the Indians will make major roster modifications based on Kottaras’ small sample, but I am generally beginning to wonder how long the Indians can afford the luxury of a player-coach. The simple truth is that they’re not going to sit Santana, and they’re not going to put the $56 million bro on the bench, either. Ryan Raburn has a .537 OPS, but he also has a two-year contract. The roster, in short, is getting increasingly squeezed.

The primary problem right now is that Santana’s history with concussion limits his usefulness behind the plate, and that could detract from his viability as a plug-and-play option at three (four, if you count DH) positions. It is that positional flexibility on Santana’s part that provides the Indians with the opportunity to carry the 43-year-old Giambi as a DH option against right-handed pitching. That’s an option the Indians clearly hope to retain.

Frankly, I’m not sure how this all shakes out for Giambi and Swisher and Santana – who starts where and on what days. All I know is that the gospel is truth: The players do, ultimately, make these decisions with their performance.

Chisenhall is shining proof.


UPDATE: This Hardball Talk headline (“Lonnie Chisenhall’s brilliance could spell the end of Jason Giambi’s career”) states it a bit stronger than I did. My hunch is that, when Swisher returns, the Indians will return to the scenario in which Santana serves as the backup catcher, which would leave Kottaras as the odd man out. As I wrote, the Indians value Giambi in his current role, and they’ve gone to significant lengths the last two years to retain that luxury. But I do think Santana’s concussion history (not to mention “Babe” Kottaras’ surprising offensive contributions, to date) complicate that issue a bit moving forward. So we shall see.

UPDATE 2: The other option, of course, is going back to a seven-man bullpen, which may very well happen. But here, too, is another piece of flexibility that Francona has demonstrated a fondness for, and eight-man ‘pens are becoming increasingly common in today’s game, given the general lack of multi-inning relievers. Plus, the Indians have doled out a lot of work to the back end guys, so that flexibility might prove important.

ALSO: Please check out my column on Michael Brantley… and the strange stipulation that allowed the Indians to land him in the first place.