It’s hard to recognize that you’re living in an era until it’s over.
Nobody knew it was the Golden Age of Baseball in the 50’s at the time. The Roaring 20’s were only Roaring in retrospect. I guess the Great Depression kind of got its name pretty quickly. That one makes sense.
On Monday night though, an era ended in Cleveland that almost passed in a whisper. When he signed with Pittsburgh, Lonnie Chisenhall ended an era of Almost Was in Cleveland.
There was a time, a couple years in fact, where Chisenhall was supposed to be the face of the franchise, the engine that made the offense go. He and Matt LaPorta, actually. They were going to be the foundation that the Indians built their title runs on. It was perfect — they swung hot bats (allegedly) and were even positioned at opposite ends of the diamond, ready to make beautiful baseball music together. That didn’t happen, for so many reasons. But Chisenhall stuck around. And time and again he gave us a hint of the talent that he held. It just never showed up. Not all the way.
Remember when he lost his job to Jack Hannahan? Super Mannahan was a dazzling defender and could nearly hit his way out of a paper bag, and somehow he took the job from the top prospect whose bat was supposed to do the talking, with his offense. Over two years in 2011 and 2012 Hannahan played in 215 games compared to just 109 for the young Chisenhall and posted a 99 OPS+, a shade worse than the 99 that Lonnie brought to the table. Somehow that bat wasn’t doing the talking, and the Indians made the move to keep winning talent on the field. Because in addition to the bat going silent, that glove proved to be a, shall we say, detriment. For a player with nearly 3,000 innings as a third baseman in the minors under his belt, it’s rare to see a player look more out of his depth than Chisenhall.
But the move to right field was, I thought, going to be a revelation. And it so almost was. With his strong arm and the athleticism to play third base poorly, I convinced myself — and probably wrote a half dozen articles about it — that Chisenhall was going to be a star in right. When he amassed 1.9 defensive WAR in 2015, I felt vindicated. When he started hitting in 2016 and posted a 117 wRC+ over the next three years, I felt even better. With the introduction of the Axe Bat in 2017, I couldn’t help but be hopeful. Finally, 2017 and ‘18 were to be the All-Star years as he solidified himself in the center of the lineup and priced himself out of Cleveland once his contract was up — or earned a nice extension and stayed because of how the franchise believed in him. Either worked in this wishful world. He was primed to be great.
If not for that damn disabled list, anyway. With those glass calves of his, we saw a mere 111 games the last two years from Chisenhall, a span where he posted a 128 wRC+ and looked at every step to be finally flourishing into that player that was promised years prior. But it was never to be. All we got were those glimpses as he eliminated his struggles with lefties, elevated his walk rate and started hitting way more fly balls. Each and every step a hint of something greater. Something we wouldn’t get to see.
More talent came down the Tribe pipeline after him, better players with more potential who have been able to realize it without struggling on the shuttle between Columbus and Cleveland and bouncing back and forth from the DL. He became a bit player, but he represented something in Cleveland. He was the first hint of a new dawn after the dismantling after 2007. Perhaps that’s too much hope to pour into one man, but he was almost something very special. It’s not the end of the world - his partner in crime Jason Kipnis is still there of course, but Chisenhall was the first round pick that year, the one who was supposed to be the star. It feels like an end. Of what, I’m not sure. But next year will be strange. Even if he played so little, knowing Chisenhall was there was a little bit of hope that he’d finally figure it out and be that last piece.
So no, nobody is going to write history books about Lonnie Chisenhall. They shouldn’t. He’s a fine player, but little more than a footnote in the history of the Cleveland Indians. For a few years though, he was so close to being something very, very special. That, at least, shouldn’t be forgotten.