For a while we were talking about Carlos Santana spelling Lonnie Chisenhall on occasion, just one more way to make sure the team's best bat is in the lineup. Over the weekend, in reviewing video of Santana and Francona both discussing the possibility of Carlos playing third, Ryan wrote that Francona "has a responsibility to put the best lineup he can onto the field, and if Santana can become at least a fair defender at third, then that lineup won't include Chisenhall."
I agree that Francona should be fielding the best lineup he can, but I wonder if Santana being capable of playing third actually means Chisenhall shouldn't be out there.
A lineup without Chisenhall is only the Tribe's best option if there's another player in camp not already in the everyday lineup who is a better use of that lineup slot. Santana is in no position to bump Chisenhall from the lineup, because Santana already has a spot. Someone else has to show themselves worthy of filling the DH spot Carlos would be vacating, otherwise you're weakening the lineup by putting him at third base.
So who should we be watching to see if Chisenhall's job is in danger?
Maybe Jesus Aguilar, but I don't see the Indians promoting him to be a full-time DH after a good-not-great-showing in AA. I know many expect Jason Giambi to make the roster. I still think he's a long shot, but even if he does, he was a worse hitter than Chisenhall last year, and Chisenhall is younger; the team has more invested in him. You can't platoon Lonnie and Giambi, as they both hit righties better than lefties.
We know Mike Aviles will be on the roster, and maybe he is an option. But he was an even worse hitter than Giambi last year and is likely to prove a better defensive third baseman than Santana, which means that our "best lineup," even if it includes Santana and Aviles, would have Aviles at third, not Santana.
We have two solid bats in right field, so maybe the one not playing in right could slot in at DH. I suppose that is possible, but if either of those guys looked good hitting both ways, the team wouldn't have sought out a platoon in right field to begin with.
Non-roster invitee Bryan LaHair seems to be a DH-type, but he hasn't had MLB success since the first half of 2012, he played in Japan in 2013, and is six years older than Chisenhall. Like Giambi, you can't platoon him with Chisenhall because they have the same strong side. He's a long shot to make the roster and seems a worse option for the lineup than Chisenhall.
That leaves David Cooper. Cooper is easily the most interesting option to me. He's recovering from a rare surgery on his spinal cord and barely saw the field last year, but in 2012 Cooper put up an intriguing year in the Blue Jays organization. After crushing the ball in Triple-A (.314/.395/.540), he showed promise in 145 MLB plate appearances. His .788 OPS in Toronto is not All-Star material from a DH (or even a first basemen), but it is far better than the .695 Chisenhall has over his MLB career.
The problem with the Cooper/Chisenhall comparison is that Chisenhall is younger and is still more likely than Cooper to become a star (or at least a solid everyday contributor to a winning club). Cooper is older, plays a less-premium position, and was never the prospect Chisenhall was. While it may seem like we have been deriding Chisenhall's lack of production forever now, he still has basically just one full year's worth of MLB experience.
If we knew for sure that Cooper would be able to put up an .800 OPS year after year, and that Chisenhall would never post much more than a .700 OPS, Santana's defense at third base could result in Cooper taking Chisenhall's spot in the lineup. If you want to track the likelihood that Chisenhall loses his job and Santana becomes a regular 3B, don't focus only on how Santana handles third - focus on how David Cooper handles the bat.
The reality is, Cooper probably cannot do enough in March for the Indians to decide they are better off rolling with him than Chisenhall. No matter how good Santana is with the glove, I'm confident Chisenhall will play third base more often than not to start the year. Not because Santana can't handle the position, but because the Tribe's best nine is extremely likely to include Lonnie Chisenhall.