Yesterday the Indians announced that Carlos Santana will be the team's starting third baseman, not Lonnie Chisenhall. Terry Francona said it will not be a platoon situation, but that Santana will also serve as the backup at catcher, behind Yan Gomes. Chisenhall will be on the 25-man roster to begin the year, but aside from playing third when Santana is behind the plate, it's not yet clear what Lonnie's role will be, or how much playing time he might receive.
A lot of you guys have already weighed on this news, but I'm down in New Orleans and didn't have a chance to comment yesterday, so here I am now: I don't like it.
Obviously there are a lot of factors that went into this decision, some of which we (as outsiders) cannot have a real handle on. I saw a lot of people in the comments supporting the move by arguing that management knows more about the situation than us and they wouldn't have done it if it were what's best for the team. Sure, but "It must be a good move because the team knows stuff we don't" is problematic for at least a couple reasons:
A) It can be applied to literally any decision the team makes. If you're going to default to that defense, and can't go any further than that, what's the point of attempting to analyze anything, or of seeking out the analysis of others?
I have a ton of respect for Terry Francona, and of course I accept that he knows a lot more about running a baseball team than I do, but that doesn't mean his judgement is infallible. If you all aren't sick of talking about this, please feel free disagree with me in the comments, but I need more than "The team knows what it's doing," because...
B) Baseball teams make decisions that prove to be bad ones all the time.
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There are a number of thoughts that ran trough my mind upon hearing the news. Some of them point towards why I don't like this news, others are questions that arise because of this news. Some of them lead me in a "maybe this isn't so bad" direction, but my aim here is to analyze, and that means including everything, whether it fits with my basic reaction to the move or not.
Why was this decision made?
If players were robots (and I'll grant you they're not), it's hard to see how this move helps the team for 2014. Chisenhall has been something like an average defender over the course of his career. You can find metrics that put him above average and metrics that put him below average, but none of them put him very far from average. Meanwhile, Santana has moderate athleticism for a catcher, but hasn't been a good first baseman, and is now attempting a tougher postion, one he hasn't played even semi-regularly since 2006. Miguel Cabrera cost Detroit 1 or 2 wins with his defense at third base last year, and while I think Santana will be better than him, I think it's overly optimistic to expect him to be average in his first year back at the hot corner.
Carlos' bat is far better than Lonnie's, but that's not the appropriate comparison, because Carlos' bat would have been in the lineup either way. Lonnie should be compared to whatever would-be backup is actually moving into the lineup in his place. Ryan Raburn, Mike Aviles, and Elliot Johnson are the guys who wouldn't be starting against right-handed pitchers (I'm fine with Lonnie often sitting against lefties), and I'd rather have Chisenhall's bat than any of theirs, especially given that he's young enough to think there's improvement left.
It's possible Lonnie will be the DH in many of those games, and his bat will still be in the lineup, in which case the difference is the defense (advantage Chisenhall), who's able to hit better while not playing defense (there's evidence that most players hit a little better when also playing a defensive position, and Santana has worse numbers when playing DH), and playing the long game (that is, looking beyond just 2014). So...
What does this mean long term?
One thing that's never been fully answered for fans is how this all started last October. Carlos said the team asked him to try playing third base. The front office said Carlos asked them about it. On some level that doesn't matter, but if the team did ask him to give up half of his offseason, I'd buy the argument that they sort of owe him an opportunity there (but I also think that opportunity could have come in a modified platoon). Carlos prefers to be in the field, and I understand why. He's also the team's best hitter, and there's something to be said for keeping him happy.
What concerns me about this move is what it says about Chisenhall's future. For all the grief he's taken for not developing nearly as well as Jason Kipnis, Lonnie has been better than most fans think. He's been mildly below average at the plate, but that's due in part to a .243 BABIP in 2013, which I'm confident is headed for a substantial positive regression. If he'd had even a .280 BABIP last year (still below average for a player with his profile), and count all of those extra hits as singles (even though there would almost certainly be some doubles in there), his line would have jumped to .262/.308/.451. That OBP is still low, but that's a great slugging percentage.
All of the major projection systems see a rise in his walk rate in 2014, and all of them have him as an above average hitter. He only turned 25 over the offseason, he's far too young to give up on. Of the top 30 third basemen of the last 30 years, many hadn't even debuted at his age, or had debuted, but had less success. Adrian Beltre had almost identical production to Lonnie from ages 22 to 24, then exploded for an MVP-type season at 25.
Some (in the comments) have speculated that a trade is one the way. Such a thing is possible, but is it probable? Many turn to a trade as the solution too easily, as if teams make them every week. Specific to this situation, what do you really imagine Chisenhall's value to be right now?
Having Santana's bat at third base is a real plus, because down the road the team may have another bat worth playing at DH. The price of this arrangement seems to be the marginalization of a player I still see a lot of potential in. That's what I don't like. I have no doubt Francona will find Lonnie some at bats if he's on the roster, but I'm not sold he'll be on the roster for long. Someone on the roster is getting sent down when Giambi is healthy, likely within two weeks of Opening Day. I fear we're going to see Lonnie sent back to Columbus again. I suppose a year from now he'll still be youngish, and will still be under team control for a good while.
I think the Indians' best chance for success in 2014 comes from having Chisenhall at third base 4 times a week, with Carlos there a couple times, behind the plate once a week or so, and at DH the other 3 games. In that scenario, Chisenhall gets a chance to break out while Santana still gets to play some defense. Instead, I think Lonnie is being pushed aside to soon.