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Tribe Happenings: Sticking with Chisenhall makes sense

Tribe Happenings: Sticking with Chisenhall makes sense
Lonnie Chisenhall (Photo: AP)
November 10, 2014
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Some news, notes and thoughts from my Indians notebook…

Sticking with Chisenhall

A month or so ago I was gung-ho about the Indians going out and trying to acquire someone like Adrian Beltre to fill their third base need. The belief was that if he were attainable that he would fill so many major holes on the roster by dramatically improving the defense at third base, add a much needed right-handed impact bat and add some very good leadership in the clubhouse.

I have cooled considerably on that stance over the past few weeks, mostly because I just don’t see the Rangers trading Beltre this offseason. Beyond Beltre there are not many interesting alternatives. Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez are going to be ridiculously expensive and also result in the loss of a first round pick to sign them.  Chase Headley is intriguing, but there are too many question marks for me to feel comfortable with him for a sizable deal. And the trade market looks bare now that the Josh Donaldson rumors have been put to bed by the Athletics.

Perhaps the Indians could unearth an interesting third base option in a trade – someone like David Freese maybe - but I think in the end they are going to stick with Chisenhall at the hot corner not. It also may not be so much because of him but because of what they have potentially coming up behind him. Giovanny Urshela is not a big time prospect, but he’s a good enough prospect where he could become a solid everyday option at third base who plays Gold Glove-caliber defense and holds his own with the bat. He is still a little ways from potentially helping the Indians and probably would not get a shot in Cleveland until at least mid-May, so the Indians need a stop gap option at third base in the meantime.

That stop gap option is Chisenhall. Now, he was awful defensively last season as he was second to last among all third basemen in baseball last season in Fangraph’s defensive metric (-9.0), was second to last in UZR/150 (-15.0), second to last in defensive runs saved (-14) and last in fielding percentage (.931). No matter how you slice it, and whether those struggles came more in the first or second half, he was very bad defensively last season and there is not much if any upside for defensive improvement in 2015 and beyond.

Chisenhall’s issues defensively contributed greatly to an Indians defense which as a whole ranked dead last in baseball ranking 30th in fielding percentage (.981), 30th in defensive runs saved (-75) and 29th in UZR/150 (-12.3). The defense is an area the Indians really want to improve, though those changes already started this past July with Jose Ramirez taking over for Asdrubal Cabrera at shortstop and Carlos Santana taking over at first base for Nick Swisher. Ramirez and Santana are a significant improvement at those positions, and enough where the Indians may feel they can get by with Chisenhall for one more season at third base to see what he does and ransition Urshela into the role at some point this season.

Chisenhall had an up and down year offensively with the bat last season. It is well documented how severe his first and second half splits were, but looking at his season as a whole he had a solid year offensively finishing 6th among all third basemen in baseball in on-base percentage (.343), 8th in OPS (.770), 10th in isolated power (.141), 7th in wRC+ (121) and 17th in WAR (1.9). In all, that’s a pretty solid player for the projected $2.2 million he will make next season.

The Indians would be wise to consider adding some flexibility for Chisenhall this spring by getting him some work in the outfield and first base so that if Urshela comes up and is the real deal it affords the Indians an opportunity to still keep Chisenhall’s bat in the lineup regularly at several different positions. Perhaps limiting his exposure to lefties and at third base could be all that is needed to bring his talent with the bat out more consistently.  Right now he hurts the Indians defensively, but helps them offensively. Perhaps a role change to a corner utility bat no longer hurts them as much defensively and maybe helps them even more offensively.

In the end, leaving third base alone could allow the Indians the opportunity to size up potential fits to help them in right field either to complement incumbent starter David Murphy, or replace him.

Where does Kipnis fit?

A few weeks ago I wrote about how Jason Kipnis is not going to be traded this offseason and will not endure a position change. While those things could happen in the future, that is more in the distant future and something that could be on the table as soon as next offseason if he has another bad year. For 2015 at least, he is the Indians second baseman.

While it is a certainty of where Kipnis will play in 2015, what is not so certain is what spot in the lineup he will occupy next season. Here is my projected regular Indians lineup next season based on the players they currently have on the roster (bat hand in parentheses):

1. Michael Bourn (L), CF
2. Jose Ramirez (S), SS
3. Michael Brantley (L), LF
4. Carlos Santana (S), 1B
5. Yan Gomes (R), C
6. Jason Kipnis, 2B
7. Nick Swisher (S), DH
8. Lonnie Chisenhall, 3B
9. David Murphy (L), RF

As you can see, two things stick out here. One, that Kipnis is slotted to hit somewhere in the bottom half of the lineup, and two, the Indians could really use a right-handed bat in right field to balance the lineup. I already discussed how the Indians may address their right field and right-handed bat need in last week’s column, so my focus here will be on Kipnis.

First off, Kipnis is not going to find his way into the middle of the lineup hitting anywhere third to fifth. Yes, manager Terry Francona inexplicably had him hitting fifth for most of the last two months of the season, but I believe common sense will finally prevail and he is going to have Gomes hit fifth to start next season (or Santana fifth and Gomes fourth).

Secondly, while Kipnis has hit second in the past, from a lineup perspective and establishing balance he really does not fit there because the Indians already have two lefties in Bourn and Brantley hitting first and third, respectively. As a result, the second spot has to be filled by a right-handed bat or switch-hitter, so that is why Ramirez – and later in the season Francisco Lindor – are the defacto options in the second spot in the order because both are switch-hitters, have speed, and handle the bat well. Ramirez is a little too aggressive for my tastes in the second spot and would prefer he hit further down the order, but the Indians have limited options to place in this spot which is why it will probably be him.

A healthy Swisher could be the wildcard and change things as he’s always had success in his career hitting out of the two-spot, and it would not surprise me to see Francona put him there to start the season if he looks good in spring training. That said, I think the Indians are going to ease some of the pressure off Swisher as he returns from double knee surgery and let him settle in hitting further down the order and then reassess the lineup later in the year.

Third, while Kipnis could profile well as an Ian Kinsler-type leading off as a guy with some speed and power, I don’t see the Indians moving Bourn out of the leadoff spot anytime soon. The Indians invested a large chunk of money into him to be their leadoff hitter, and even with his struggles the last two season they have shown no signs of wavering from placing him in that spot. To move him out of that spot would almost be an admission that his signing was a failure. Personally, I would hit Bourn much further down the order, even at the very bottom, but I am not the one making out the lineup card on a nightly basis and I completely understand the contract-money angle in play here.

So if Kipnis does not fit anywhere in the top five spots in the lineup, where does he fit?

A good argument can be made that Kipnis should hit sixth in the lineup. The Indians will have a right-handed bat or switch-hitter hitting fifth and Swisher’s switch-hitting bat should slot in at seventh, so the sixth spot in the order is a good place to put a lefty bat. But even with his severe first and second half splits, Lonnie Chisenhall appears to be a better fit right now in more of a run producing spot in the order.

If that is the case, it leaves the eighth and ninth spot as the two available spots to place Kipnis in the lineup, and really it doesn’t matter which spot he occupies. If the Indians don’t acquire a right-handed bat for right field, then Murphy would almost seemingly have to slot into the ninth spot and Kipnis eighth, but if the Indians get a productive right-handed bat then Kipnis could end up ninth. Even if the Indians acquire a right-handed bat, that bat would probably hit seventh and Swisher would then hit eighth - though he could slide to second and then Ramirez would move down to eighth or ninth.

The key here is which one of Chisenhall or Kipnis slots in at the sixth spot. Based on recent performance, Chisenhall would be the more logical fit, but based on career history and status Kipnis probably ends up getting placed there. I mean, I find it hard to believe that the Indians will place their $52 million investment in one of the last two spots in the lineup.

Unfortunately, money and status will play into all of this to some degree. That’s why players like Bourn, Swisher and Kipnis will probably receive a longer leash with their lineup placement to start next season. The hope is they rebound to career norms, and if they do, then they deserve to hit in those projected spots in the lineup. But if they struggle, then by midseason the Indians could have one of the most expensive seven, eight and nine combinations in all of baseball.

Two out of three ain’t bad

As Meatloaf was belted out, “Don’t be sad, ‘cause two out of three ain’t bad.”

That’s how the Indians should look at the three most recent long-term extensions they doled out this past spring to Michael Brantley, Yan Gomes and Jason Kipnis. They gave those deals not just to lock in the cost of three very important core players through their arbitration years, but also to lengthen their control of a trio of players they really believe are foundational pieces to a championship caliber lineup.

Brantley, 27, signed a four-year $25 million extension that also includes an option for a fifth year at $11 million in 2018. He responded by having his best season as a pro this year and broke out as one of the game’s best players hitting .327 with 20 homers, 97 RBI and .890 OPS in 156 games. His MVP-caliber season makes that deal look like a steal, and assuming he stays healthy and productive that option in 2018 will be picked up, so for the next four seasons he will make a total of $30 million. His extension looks a lot like Manny Ramirez’s deal he signed after the 1995 season to lock him in for another five years at a fixed cost and buy out a free agent year – though Brantley’s deal could buy out two free agent years.

Gomes, 27, signed a six year, $23 million extension that also includes club options in 2020 ($9 million) and 2021 ($11 million). After a slow start in April, he went on to have one of the best seasons by a catcher in all of baseball hitting .278 with 21 homers, 74 RBI and .785 OPS in 135 games. He has solidified himself as an All-Star caliber player – maybe even MVP-caliber along the lines of Yadier Molina with the way he impacts with his defense, pitch framing and very productive bat. His contract is one of the best Indians contract extensions for a position player since Omar Vizquel’s seven year, $21 million deal in the 90s that locked up his arbitration cost but also bought out multiple free agent years.

Kipnis, 27, signed a six year, $52.5 million extension that also includes a club option in 2020 ($16.5 million). His extension was the most expensive because he was more established as one of the top offensive second basemen in the game, but he did not respond well as he had his worst season as a pro hitting .240 with 6 homers, 41 RBI and .640 OPS in 129 games. It was a sharp decline in performance that makes what first appeared to be a good deal suddenly a potential albatross if he does not turn things around going forward. The hope is his struggles last season were tied to his season-long oblique issue which sapped his ability to drive the ball and that with a full offseason of rest and building  up his core that he performs as expected in 2015 and beyond.

Of no coincidence, all three players are 27-years old and hitting the prime of their careers. The Indians have them locked in place to stay in Cleveland throughout their prime years and then some. If all perform as expected going forward and avoid the injury bug then it was a very wise investment – even if only two of the three deals pan out.

Parting shots

This is awards week in baseball, and two Indians players Michael Brantley and Corey Kluber will be front and center stage as both are one of three finalists for the AL MVP and AL Cy Young award. The AL Cy Young will be announced on Wednesday and the AL MVP on Thursday, with both being unveiled on live TV on MLB Network at 6pm ET. Both Brantley and Kluber will be on the program for on-air interviews. … Last week Indians players took home some hardware as Brantley and Yan Gomes won Silver Slugger awards as the top hitter in the AL at their position. … Carlos Santana was named to the 29-man MLB All Star roster that is participating in Japan for a special series between the two countries. The games will be broadcast live on MLB Network, with the first being an exhibition game this Tuesday at 4am ET.

Follow Tony and the Indians Baseball Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2014 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.

User Comments

Joseph
November 15, 2014 - 6:18 AM EST
You guys are giving this cheap,inept Front Office a pass when you defend guys like Chisenhall and Swisher. Chisenhall had a hot two months and then reverted back to his terrible hitting the rest of the year. Swisher even when healthy is just not a consistent enough hitter to carry in a lineup that desperately needs help. Throw in an over-the-hill Murphy and you get 1 or 2 runs game after game...and in turn wasted good pitching when we are fortunate enough to get it. We need a middle-of -the-order hitter and the FO knows it. They are just not willing to spend the money. That is why Dolan must go...and take incompetent Antonetti with him.
Ryan
November 12, 2014 - 6:59 PM EST
Everyone accepts that Chisenhall's defense was terrible this year. However, being "average" as he was projected to be and has shown in the past is a FAR cry from his terrible-ness this year.
Rich
November 12, 2014 - 8:40 AM EST
With healthy knees Swisher averaged 83 RBI's a season for the previous eight years. I don't see why he can't come reasonably close to that level next season if his knees are OK.

Do you think that playing baseball on TWO knees that need surgery might affect a player's ability to hit?

Nobody is counting on Chisenhall to make a "comeback". He just had the best season of his career by far. You can't make a comeback from a career season. The question is whether this is the new norm, whether he can hit even better, or whether he just got hot for two months and will regress to being a .230 hitter with a bad glove in the future.

I really think a position change could benefit Chiz. Right field would be perfect since he has a strong arm. He wouldn't have to worry about those pesky ground balls and could concentrate on hitting. We just need to trade Murphy, which is easier said than done.

If we weren't stuck with Bourn's contract we could move Brantley to center and Chiz to left. That's still an option if Bourn is constantly in and out of the lineup with leg problems next year, which is certainly possible.
Joseph
November 12, 2014 - 5:57 AM EST
If there master plan is...to wait for Swisher"s knee to heal and depend on comebacks from Chisenhall and over-the-hill Murphy...we are in for a long season!
Joseph
November 12, 2014 - 5:25 AM EST
In regard to the article "Antonetti finding complimentary pieces"...that is exactly the problem with this team for the last four seasons. Always bringing in complimentary pieces when we don't have the right front line pieces in place. We need replacement pieces...not any more backups and utility types. We need an impact hitter. Dolan and Antonetti need to stop this nonsense of telling us who they can't get and GET a power righthanded bat.
Joseph
November 12, 2014 - 5:18 AM EST
We don't need any bridge at third base, we need a hitter ...badly. And while defense is an issue, the more pressing issue is the offense. We need a middle of the order hitter. Go back and look at how many times we wasted some pretty good pitching last season because we could only manage 1 or 2 runs. Again defense is important...but if you can't score...what are you defending? It is time that finally...Dolan and Antonetti step up and make a significant move and stop giving us excuses not to.
Tondo
November 11, 2014 - 4:37 PM EST
Just read a report that the Braves look for LH platoon bat to pair with Chris Johnson. How about Chis+? for Gattis?
Rich
November 11, 2014 - 8:48 AM EST
This will be a pivotal season for Kipnis. Somebody made the point that other than one month in 2013 he's been an average player at best. I checked and yes, he hit .419 with 25 RBIs in June, 2013. Take out that one month and the rest of his season was .257 with 13 HRs and 59 RBIs in 471 ABs. Decent numbers for a second baseman, but nothing special.

Coupled with his performance last season, both offensively and defensively, and it makes you wonder what kind of player he is, exactly. At age 28 he should be in the prime of his career. Will he settle in as a .250 hitter with limited power and limited range at second? A gamer who plays hard but seldom walks, makes a lot of outs, and waves at a lot of ground balls?

I think he needs to lose some weight, get a little quicker in the field, forget about trying to hit 20 HRs and concentrate on hitting line drives and drawing more walks.

As for Chiz, I thought this comment was interesting; "Perhaps limiting his exposure to lefties and at third base could be all that is needed to bring his talent with the bat out more consistently." Santana's hitting was adversely affected when he tried to play third base and was getting a lot of criticism. Possibly moving Chiz to RF or LF (with Brantley moving to center) would allow him to concentrate more on his offense. DH would be even better, but Swisher and/or Aguilar should have that spot locked up for a couple more years.
Tony
November 11, 2014 - 8:46 AM EST
Joseph, as noted in the piece, Chisenhall was one of the better performing players offensively at third bases. He was an above average player based on league averages for batting average, on-base percentage and OPS. The defense was pretty bad though, again, as noted. While I would love an impact bat, that's a luxury more than a necessity right now. Their biggest problem last year was their poor defense and inability of their pen to hold leads late in games. The other problem obviously is their success against left-handed pitching.

Collins, who is bashing Urshela? I think a lot of people are intrigued by what he can do and cautiously optimistic that he could be a long term solution at third base at worst as an average player there (above average defense combined with slightly below average offense). Again, that's at worst....there is upside to be a lot more.
collins
November 11, 2014 - 8:15 AM EST
Chisenhall is nothing more than a stop gap until Urshela is brought up. At the worst, he will hit as well as Chisenhall. When you combine what would be his worst possible output offensively with his clearly advanced defense it is a no brainer that he is clearly the future at third base starting at some point next year and for the 6 years they can afford him. And another thing, stop bashing the kid. You find every chance to point out everything he does wrong. The kid has progressed quickly through the system, performing at a very good level for his age at each stop. What is your beef with him? 270 hitter, 15 home runs and gold glove defense....name the last time you saw anything close to that here in the last twenty years? Get off of the Indians payroll and start saying it like it is!!!!!!
Mike
November 11, 2014 - 7:59 AM EST
Chiz has a future if he can even out his hitting performance, despite what is (at best) below average defense. If there were a decent market for him, I'd trade him mid-year in hopes of playing Ramirez or Urshela there (assuming one of those guys can hit decently enough for the position). The bigger issue for me is the underperforming outfield, particularly Bourn and Murphy. If Brantley can continue to hit at an advanced level he's obviously a jewel, but the other two complimented their poor 2014 defense with below average hitting. If it were possible to include one of those two in a trade package for a righty power hitting outfielder, even if we included a young prospect on the "really good" list, I'd do it in a nano-second because I think our tam has such great potential in 2015.
Joseph
November 11, 2014 - 6:23 AM EST
Chisenhall cannot hit and he cannot catch the ball. Depending on him at 3B and relying on Swisher and Murphy to have come back years is like...doing the same thing over and over. ..You are going to get the same results. This approach is also telling us fans...they are not going to make any significant moves and as a result...there will be no significantif any improvement.
Joseph
November 11, 2014 - 6:15 AM EST
Sticking with Chisenhall is "fools gold". This guy has proved for three years now...he cannot hit. He is one of the reasons along with Swisher and Murphy ...that we can only mange 1 or 2 runs a game...and waste good pitching night after night. We need a middle of the order hitter. Management and sports writers need to stop telling us what this team cannot do. Us Indian fans are sick and tired of it. Bring in an impact bat...get it done. And all this talk about defense belies the fact...when you cannot score and usually not leading in the game ...what are you defending?
C L Who
November 11, 2014 - 2:26 AM EST
At this point Chisenhall reminds me of Andy Marte. If you pencil out the numbers for a whole year of ABs, they are pretty impressive as to HR, RBI, etc.........even if Andy was hitting 225 with an OBP of 280.

In Chisenhall's case, we must ask how many lousy ABs and two month long slumps does it take to offset the 4 to 6 weeks of great production? My answer: about the same as he had in 2014. In no way does 4 to 6 weeks of production obscure an unrelentingly negative end of season.

Chis's defense is terrible and not getting better. Every run saved by Urshela is two the team doesn't need to score to tie and win. I submit that Urshela's defense alone will generate more WAR than Chis's paltry 13 HR even if Urshela hits the same miserable line as the Normal Chis, which is about 230 / 285.OBP.
Tony
November 11, 2014 - 12:27 AM EST
Path, the general consensus in the industry is that Chisenhall has no upside with his defense at third base. That he is what he is. He's always been a below average to average defender in the minors and had his issues and really has not improved much since his first season at the hot corner at Kinston in 2009.
Pathofkindness
November 11, 2014 - 12:08 AM EST
Mostly in agreement here, except one comment "and there is not much if any upside for defensive improvement in 2015 and beyond," doesn't make sense to me. Tony, you don't know that, and it's just not true, there is potential for improvement in Chisenhall's defense. I'm ok w this being your opinion, but it's presented here as fact, and that's just not right...IMO...
William
November 10, 2014 - 9:46 PM EST
It is the right call. Chisenhall should get another crack at third base. He is slowly putting it all together.....if he ever does put it all together for a full season he's a nice bat for the lineup.
Walter
November 10, 2014 - 3:23 PM EST
Tony

You are dead on that Chisenhall isa bridge at 3b until a better option appears internally or externally.

Internally who has the best shot to become the Indians future at 3b. Urshela, Gonzalez or Chang?

Only way Donaldson becomes available, if the A's are out of contention at the trade deadline or he becomes available next off season as his price could rise further in his 2nd year of arb.

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