The last days of Lonnie Chisenhall?

  Lonnie Chisenhall (Jason Miller/Getty Images)  
Describing Lonnie Chisenhall as a Major League baseball player for the Cleveland Indians is in many ways similar to someone trying to explain their extreme compulsions.

There are those that defend his defense:

"No, really, Lonnie can be an elite defender in right field, even though he's only played 51 big league games there, and 106 professional games in his entire career. I mean, if you project out those 51 games to a full season, he's a superstar in the making defensively!"

And there are those that squint enough to only see a month or two on offense:

"Yes, Lonnie can be a star offensively, like his 2014 start to the season would suggest. Sometimes it takes a player time to catch his groove. Now that he's found his position, he's going to dominate...or at least hit .270 with some Lon-Dongs!"

Then you have the comparisons to Jerry Sands:

"But his numbers always average out to...well...average...and you can do a lot worse than that!"

Then, of course, there is ridiculous:


In the land of Lonnie, what you ultimately get is a pretty flawed Major League baseball player. At his best, you can see a former top prospect in the organization doing whatever he can to get better, while helping the team by shifting positions. At worst, Lonnie Chisenhall's best is a "replacement level starter," or a good piece to a platoon scenario. While that's not a bad thing on a roster that's seen a treasure-trove of garbage over the years in right field, it could mean that 2016 is Chisenhall's last call at the Indians' square dance.

Before you discuss anything in regards to Chisenhall, it's important that you reset expectations. Yes, Chis was a former top prospect as an infielder in all of baseball. In 2011, there was a true debate at who would be the better Major Leaguer, Lonnie or Jason Kipnis. In fact, Lonnie was called up before Kipnis that year, and if you weighed the hot takes on twitter, it would have tilted towards Big Lon being better long-term player.

That was a long time ago.

Today, Lonnie isn't top prospect anymore. While he's still young (27), he's more-or-less been a "catch-and-release" sorta player over the past five seasons. His defense at third teetered-or-tottered from good-to-bad, literally from inning-to-inning, and his offense was as consistent as ordering risotto in a chain restaurant. Every once in awhile, he gets it right and it's amazing, but mostly, it's just plain dreadful.

Lonnie is a $3 million dollar right fielder, who is still learning the position. His splits offensively over his career say he's better hitting righties as a left-handed hitter, but over the past couple of seasons, it's actually evened out a tad. Still, Terry Francona likely feels better putting him out there against right-handed pitchers, and while the term "regular outfielder" likely isn't off the table, I'm not sure anyone in the organization is expecting Lonnie to be the regular right fielder.

Jordan Bastian said it best last year in a mailbag answer in September:
"So what the Indians appear to have in Chisenhall is a plus defender in right field who can thrive in a role that has him facing primarily right-handed pitching. That's a similar role previously filled by veteran David Murphy..."
Murphy's deal with the Tribe was for $6 million dollars at the time, and while metrics pointed to more offense from Murphy back then, it never panned out.

I know what you're thinking. "Jim, Alex Gordon walked up to Lonnie Chisenhall last season and said it was like looking in the mirror. Baseball reference has Alex Gordon ranked #1 in similarity score to Chis regarding the age 26 year, when Gordon moved to left field and became a superstar."

I get it. I also get that Alex Gordon is a best-case scenario. Stories of a middling player over a multi-year career shape-shifting into superstardom and 6+ WAR seasons aren't the norm. It can happen, but if you are counting on it, the saying "crap in one hand and wish in another, and see which fills up faster" was built for you. If that's Lonnie's ceiling, I think you're trying to build the Tower of Babel.

The more likely scenario is that Lonnie Chisenhall is exactly what Bastian was comparing him to way back in September of 2015: David Murphy. Murphy wasn't a great defender, but was brought into Cleveland to platoon in the outfield with Ryan Raburn or Drew Stubbs. He had a solid stick vs. righties, and wouldn't kill you defensively. Chis isn't likely to be as good offensively as the Indians wanted Murphy to be, but he has a chance to be much better defensively, so it's not a perfect comp, but I think you get the point.

Expectations for Chisenhall should be tempered by his body-of-work, not his projections from 2011, or his huge months in 2014, or a sorta similar player who broke out for the Kansas City Royals named Alex Gordon.

From there, though, the questions linger. Seriously, who the hell is Lonnie Chisenhall anyways?

Defensively, I'm as intrigued with Lonnie in right field as anyone. While I'm not going to be so bold as to say Lonnie's "elite," I was absolutely impressed with how he handled a mid-season move to a position, that according to many, he had virtually begged the Indians' to move him to...multiple times. But as Carlos Santana proved in his attempt to move to the third base, movin' ain't easy. Sure, moving to the hot corner from catcher is a lot more difficult that moving from the hot corner to the outfield, but at the big league level, it's still not an easy task. Santana had the offseason to prep for his difficult (and failed) transition, while Chisenhall had a two-month, mid-season alteration in Columbus.

The fact that he became a better right fielder defensively at a position he never played before than he ever was at the position he played before really says all you need to know.  It was a surprise to many that Chisenhall became a valuable chip defensively, unless you're one of those Monday Morning Quarterbacks, an overboard Lonnie follower on twitter, or your last name is Chisenhall. He blew past expectations, and solidified a position that had been manned by Sands and Moss and Murphy and Raburn. It was a defensive nightmare turned glorious.

But it was a surprise.

Expectations were met, then exceeded. Chis made people smile. Hell, he even hit some! In August, he rolled out a typical head-scratching .403/.474/.552 split (no, I don't think his .543 BABIP is sustainable) for the month, and made himself relevant again.

Offensively, Lonnie ultimately did what Lonnie does, and ended up forgetting to take his bat to the plate for much of September, but his glove never wavered. You know the numbers. His Defensive Runs Saved was 11 in his short stint in right field. He looked fantastic breaking on balls, took great angles, and got the glove on everything. His 9.3 UZR rating is nutso, and while I put some stock in the metrics there, the eye test was just as impressive.

Lonnie balled out there in right field.

But how in the hell do you move forward with those sorts of numbers? Lonnie was a competent third baseman defensively, minus when things would get in his head. He's a very athletic ballplayer, but that doesn't always equate to outstanding defense. Does he project as "elite?" What the hell does elite even mean?

So it's an unknown, and those really should be our expectations moving forward. Lonnie was a competent third baseman, a position he worked at for years, and was an outstanding 51-game right fielder, a position he hadn't worked at since college. Put those puzzle pieces out there and swallow them for a bit. They don't go down to easy, because you really don't know what you're even eating.

Offensively, you've seen all the stats. Last year was bad, then REALLY good, then bad. His 2014 season ended up slightly above average, but started MVP caliber, and ended up rolling around in hog mud. His M.O. is clearly rumbling around in extremism. His splits rarely tell us much. He's a better hitter against right handers, which likely means he'll sorta be the starter out there in right, but that doesn't give us any indicators that he can do much more than hit .250, with 10 or so homers. He doesn't walk a whole lot, and won't kill you with too many K's, but doesn't get on base enough to hit anywhere near the middle-to-top-of-the-order.

But there are those extremely...good....months. What if he put one together?

What if.


Bring them down.

Lonnie's offense has been nothing but inconsistent, and that's where his expectations should be. If he somehow turns magically into the Alex Gordon of 2016, you jump up and down at the local watering hole and hug whoever is sitting next to you with slightly more passion than you should. If he remains Lonnie, you shrug your shoulders, and accept it.

The real question then shifts to this: Does Lonnie Chisenhall give the Indians' the best chance to win of the players that are potentially available to them in right heading into the 2016 season?

Prior to last week, Chisenhall was damn anchor of the outfield. My, how quickly things change, and how scary that must have been to the front office and field management.

Michael Brantley is playing baseball again, and not feeling any effects after his off season surgery threatened to derail what seemed like weeks and months. Now, he may be ready for opening day. Marlon Byrd is now a part of this baseball team as well, signing a minor league deal with the club last week.

His assumed position?

It would have to be right, right? A potential platoon with Lonnie?

Byrd is a player that many have coveted for the Indians over the past two or three years. The now-38-year old can hit the baseball, and play decently in the outfield. He's nothing special, but when you see his 23 homers, 25 doubles and 3 triples from last season, you can understand that there is interesting value there. He can also play right and left, should the need arise.

Byrd will make $1 million if (when) he makes the ballclub, and has an opportunity to make another $2.5 million in incentives. That's not a bad deal. He could make $3.5 million.

Lonnie makes $3 million.

You see what I'm getting at. Pondering value is idiotic at this point, since both players are really in different places in their careers, and Lonnie is guaranteed his money. Byrd isn't, but will likely get his guaranteed $1 million, once the Indians add him to the roster.

This is where I could stroll down the path of pondering, debating whether or not the Indians could find "Chisenhall-like" players for less than $3 million from year-to-year, but there aren't always Marlon Byrds laying around in wait from year-to-year. It's also not good business to wait until March every year before finding such players, which is why the Indians go after the David Murphys and the Rajai Davises for bargains in the $5-$7 million range.

So, Lonnie isn't going anywhere, and he shouldn't, but it's clear that the clock is ticking. While Marlon Byrd and Rajai Davis are one-year wonders for the Tribe, there are some youngsters lurking who will be searching for full time gigs in the outfield pretty soon. Bradley Zimmer is steaming through the minors with a chip on his shoulder, and could be ready as soon as this year, but more likely next. And Clint Frazier isn't too far behind him.

Lonnie's days are numbered anyways, right?

Even if he puts things together this year and is special, turning into that Alex Gordon-type, do the Indians really gamble on that as Chisenhall heads towards free agency in 2019? In simple terms, Chisenhall won't even likely make David Murphy money until 2018, unless something ridiculously magical happens in 2016, so doesn't that give the Indians a bargain until then?

That's when things begin to get complicated for me, and why, in the end, I am not in the Chisenhall "camp," so-to-speak. For the Indians to win under the current regime, this is a team that needs to be put together with a varying degree of Dr. Frankensteinian talent. While the team can't afford an $100 million dollar superstar, it can afford to put together an overall group of players whose sum has to equate to more than the parts. Down years offensively or defensively anywhere take on bigger consequence for the Tribe than many other teams, simply because they fiscally don't spend as much as others.

They need players that fit, and they need players that hit. I'm not sure Lonnie can do that, because when he doesn't hit, he really doesn't hit. Whenever I discuss Lonnie with anyone, inevitably this statement is made: "Can his defense overcome his offense?" Most of the time, the answers vary from a resounding "YES," to a hesitant, "it should."

But I wonder.

If you look at Lonnie's body of work, can the Indians really withstand months of .140 hitting, with no power and no ability to get on base? While some factions of Indians' twitter are likely sharpening their knives to carve me up, it's pretty damn true people. I'm not making the numbers up. Use your eyes.

Sure, the roster is probably better than people give it credit, with Francisco Lindor, Jason Kipnis, Brantley, Carlos Santana, Yan Gomes and Mike Napoli being a nice foundation. But rare is the day that any roster has all cogs clicking at once, and the Indians can't afford to carry around a teeter-totter-like player to the extreme of Chis. It would be one thing if Lonnie was a consistent .250 or .260 hitter from month-to-month, but with 11 of his 25 Major League months coming in at .222 or lower, that's not a reality.

(I'd like to take a quick aside here. I get that average isn't an indicator in the pure sense, but the intangible stats that go with his crap averages are pretty crappy too. I'd also like to notate that a couple of those "months" are short. I'd also like to notate that a couple of his "better" months are short too. In other words, I'm not analytical-ing the shit out of this piece, but the stats do bear out)

So what is Lonnie Chisenhall? He's an extreme player, still playing a new position, with an escalating salary, with cheaper-or-equal options on the team that are less extreme with potentially equal value, and prospects knocking on the door.

Does that cover it?

And did I mention that the Indians made it public that they are still looking for more outfielders in a potential trade?

It's too bad that Chisenhall isn't some sorta pseudo-utility player. It would be fun to look at him as a $2-3 million a year player that could find time in right and left field, as well as first and third base. You can give him 90 games, and likely not lose a lot defensively, with no expectations. The Indians could put Brantley, Davis, Byrd and Tyler Naquin in the outfield in some conglomeration, with Jose Ramirez and Lonnie Chisenhall coming off the bench in some sorta supplemental fashion. Maybe that's where we go, or perhaps his erratic bat makes even that untenable. Wouldn't you rather have Lonnie in a correct role, then say, Mike Aviles?

Big #8 does have upside, but his "ceiling" (I really am starting to hate using this trendy, sound-smart references) is getting lower by the year. He does bring value, but his value is tempered by his body of work, raising cost, and potentially better options either currently on the roster, or in the near future. 

This is where the rubber meets the road for the Indians' former first round pick. Can he earn his way onto this team long-term in some sort of role, varying from a valuable utility player all the way up to another Alex Gordon, and while it sounds sorta funny to give two bookends so far apart for any player, this is where we are with Lonnie.

Hunting for correct expectations.

It's not an easy proposition.

If he continues to bounce from extreme-to-extreme, tempting fans, and more importantly, management, with the "elite" that many have been hoping for since he was drafted, before ultimately derailing expectations with months of terrible offense, the long and winding Lonnie Chisenhall experiment will likely come to a close.

For better or worse, ole #8 will likely be Lon-Gone sooner...rather than later.
Share on Google Plus

About Jim Pete

Under Construction