Lonnie Chisenhall was the Indians 1st-round pick in 2008, and after strong play in High-A and Double in 2009 and 2010, he was named one of Baseball America's top 40 prospects in the country after each of those seasons. He was called up to Cleveland in late June of 2011, assumed to be the team's long-term solution at third base, a position the team had ben handling by committee for going on four seasons. Two-and-a-half years later though, Chisenhall has been a disappointment.
The Indians have Carlos Santana take infield practice at third to see if he might be a viable option, and here's a sense from many fans that whether Santana can play there or not, 2014 should be Chisenhall's last chance. I wish he's delivered more on his promise too, but I think it's time to walk things back a bit, and gain some perspective.
First off, Lonnie hasn't been all that bad. In 2012 he did pretty well at the plate, putting up a .741 OPS in 43 games (with a 2-month break in the middle, due to a broken bone in his arm caused by a HBP), good for an OPS+ of 107, meaning he was a bit better than average as a hitter, at the age of 23.
Chisenhall came out of the gates poorly in 2013, and after six weeks he was sent back to Triple-A. Six weeks later he came back up. Over the remainder of the year he had 209 plate appearances, in which he put up a .699 OPS, which works out to about a 98 OPS+, given park and leagues factors for the Tribe last year. That production came despite a .242 BABIP, a good sign that he was unlucky (the other possibility is he had a ton of weak contact, but his line drive rate of 19.7%
Give him even a .280 BABIP (still well below average), and even if all the extra hits were singles, his batting line after he returned to Cleveland would have been .262/.308/.451, which would have given him the 6th-best OPS on the team (min. 100 PA).
Even if you're not sold on bad luck having a lot to do with his mediocre numbers in 2014, his career OPS+ through 682 plate appearances is 94. Not good, but also not the disaster some fans seem to think he's been, and he was still only 24 last year.
Among the top 30 third baseman in WAR over the last 30 years (each of whom had at least 20 career WAR), 5 of them didn't even debut until their age-25 season or later (Casey Blake, Corey Koskie, Melvin Mora, Bill Mueller, Joe Randa). Of the 25 who had debuted, 6 of them posted a lower OPS+ through their age-24 season than Chisenhall has (Ken Caminiti, Jeff Cirillo, Chone Figgins, Mike Lowell, Terry Pendleton, Aramis Ramirez). I know many of those names aren't especially exciting, but they all had fine careers, far better than the average first-round pick.
If you'll allow me to cherry-pick an especially fun comparison:
- Chisenhall during his age-22 to 24 seasons: .244/.284/.411, 94 OPS+
- Adrian Beltre during his age-22 to 24 seasons: .254/.300/.421, 92 OPS+
Beltre then hit 48 home runs in his age-25 season, and would have won the MVP if Barry Bonds hadn't had a .609 OBP.
(I left out the fact that Beltre had been an above average MLB hitter at the ages of 20 and 21)
Alex Gordon was another highly touted third baseman. He was a below average hitter through the age of 24... and the age of 25... and the age of 26. Then he broke out and put up an OPS+ of 140 in his age-27 season (after having been converted into a great defensive left fielder).
If you include players at other, lesser defensive positions, you can find Bo Jackson, Sammy Sosa, Tino Martinez, Garret Anderson, Jermaine Dye, Chris Davis, and plenty of others too, each of whom had 500+ PA through their age-24 season, but was a below average hitters to that point, then went on to become an All-Star.
Will Chisenhall become an All-Star? I don't know, but don't count him out just because he's struggled so far. He hasn't been as bad as you probably think, and he's plenty young enough to still put things together. If this is the year he does it, I won't be surprised.