Lonnie Chisenhall is at a crossroads.
One path in front of him: Play well in 2014 and his job with the Indians is secure. He was drafted by the organisation to be the man responsible for the hot corner in Cleveland for years to come and he could still do that.
However, Chisenhall is also under threat. After a disappointing 2013 campaign, which included a mid-season demotion to Triple-A Columbus, the Tribe may soon look to other options, and there certainly are options (more on that later), so if he doesn't show improvement, he'll find himself on a different path.
Right now the position is still Lonnie's to lose and he's scheduled as the starting third baseman on Opening Day. He's in almost exactly the same position as he was last year, having essentially been handed the keys before Spring Training. However, after completing his third year in the major leagues, expectations are higher for Chisenhall this time around. It's time to deliver.
The 25-year-old North Carolina native had a difficult, adjustment-filled 2013 for sure. In 94 games and 289 at-bats Lonnie batted just .225 with a .270 OBP and a .398 SLG. He contributed 11 home runs, 36 RBI, and a meager 16 walks. Chisenhall's biggest problem was his inability to hit left-handed pitchers. In 36 at bats Lonnie could only muster a .111 batting average. That's 4 hits total (hey, at least 2 of them were doubles and 1 was a homer... silver lining?). It got so bad that eventually skipper Terry Francona started leaving Chisenhall out of games when the Indians faced lefty starters, preferring Mark Reynolds and then Mike Aviles at third base instead. It wouldn't surprise me at all if Francona continues to platoon Lonnie next season, at least to begin with.
If Chisenhall's struggles with left handers don't go away in 2014 and he can't improve that aspect of his game, I worry that Lonnie will never realise his potential and won't become the everyday third baseman he was expected to be. You can't play everyday if you're being platooned all the time, and the Indians have taken precautions this offseason just in case he gets off to a slow start again.
Mike Aviles is still on the roster and looked perfectly capable at third base when he was inserted there. The Tribe signed David Adams recently, who played 31 games at third base for the Yankees in 2013 and could be a right-handed platoon partner for Lonnie. There's the young and speedy Jose Ramirez, who spent most of his limited time in the show coming off the bench to pinch-hit and pinch-run but could be a potential threat to Chisenhall at third base too.
Then there's the 'Carlos Santana Experiment.' Santana is spending this month at home in the Dominican Winter League, learning the finer arts of third base (with mixed results so far). Whether or not Santana is a serious threat to Chisenhall's position remains to be seen but the mere fact that the club want Santana taking grounders at third at all is hardly an encouraging sign as far as Lonnie is concerned.
And I haven't even mentioned the possibility of the Indians trading for outside help at third base, which could always be in the cards.
It's not all doom and gloom though. I still really like Chisenhall's chances and apparently so do the Oliver projections (courtesy of Brian Cartwright): Oliver predicts him to have a breakout year, hitting 21 home runs, raising his OBP to a much improved .314, and achieving a very respectable 109 wRC+. The Steamer projections are also encouraging, expecting Lonnie to bat .257, hit 15 homers, and reach a 106 wRC+. ZiPS has similar hopes as well, expecting Lonnie to raise his BA to .258, smash 13 homers and attain a decent .315 wOBA. If Lonnie can come close to these numbers, I think all of us would be unbelievably happy with his output.
If Chisenhall can get off to a hot start in Spring Training (like last year) and maintain that form once the real season begins (unlike last year), then there could be no holding him back. I've been a big Chisenhall fan for a long time now and I just want to see him reach the level of play that the Indians expected when they drafted him 29th overall back in 2008. In 2014, I believe he finally will.