Lonnie Chisenhall enters his seventh MLB season with the Cleveland Indians and is again eligible for arbitration this off-season, his third and final arbitration eligible season. Chisenhall turned 28 in October and should be in the prime of his career. The question many Indians fans like to debate is whether his prime will ever be good enough.
Should Chisenhall go the arbitration route this off-season, he would be projected to earn around $4.1 million, according to MLBtraderumors.com. In 2016, he earned $2.725 million. Figuring the Indians front office would like to avoid the arbitration process with Chisenhall, it might be safe to think he might sign for around $4 million, which would give him a $1.275 million raise.
If the Indians simply decide to cut ties with Chisenhall or feel that he’s too expensive of an option, they could non-tender him and he would be free to sign with another team with the Indians receiving no compensation.
However, if $4 million is a reasonable financial number to base an argument on whether to keep Chisenhall, let’s first discuss his role as a platoon right fielder with a good arm who plays solid above average defense.
We all can remember how Chisenhall struggled during his time as a third baseman, but then when thrust into the outfield in right, he blossomed into not only a good defensive player, but improved offensively. In the two months after he made the switch to right field in 2015, Chisenhall was considered to have saved 11 runs above average, according to BaseballReference.com. However, for the entire 2016 campaign, he was credited with just three defensive runs saved and was considered a slightly above average defensive player in right field.
His slash in 2016 was a respectable .286/.328/.439 (.767 OPS) and he hit 25 doubles along with 8 home runs and 57 RBI in 126 games that included 418 plate appearances and 385 official at-bats. For his career, Chisenhall has a .263/.311/.414 (.725 OPS) slash. Fangraphs.com considers .710 as a league average for OPS and considers .800 to be above average. So offensively, Chisenhall could be considered a slightly above average hitter and not a bad fit for the lower part of the lineup.
Entering the 2016 season, the average MLB salary was about $4.4 million, according to USA Today. That figure is likely to rise next season, so if Chisenhall was awarded about $4 million for the 2017, he certainly wouldn’t be overpaid considering he’s a slightly above average player who also had 1.4 Wins Above Replacement rating for last season.
Certainly the Indians could look on the free agent market to help supplement and improve the outfield, but finding someone who is significantly better than Chisenhall is going to cost more than $4 million per season. In the Cleveland market, using some extra dollars perhaps might be better spent to offer Francisco Lindor or Jose Ramirez a long-term contract while they are young and potentially willing to do it.
Chisenhall is at the point in his career where he’s going to play mostly against right-handed pitching, which is roughly 2/3 of the time, perhaps more. He’s probably close to or at his peak as a player, but it’s certainly possible he could continue an upward trend or at least hit like he did in 2016 next season.
With Michael Brantley expected to play left field next season, that leaves Abraham Almonte, Brandon Guyer and Tyler Naquin as the other outfielders currently on the roster. Bradley Zimmer is one of the Tribe’s top prospects and plays a good center field, but it’s likely he starts the season in AAA before a call up at some point in 2017.
One could pose a good argument that the outfield is where the Indians should focus on the free agent market. Get a significant upgrade in center or right field and move on in 2017. It would make some sense if there is a good fit who would be an upgrade over Chisenhall and perhaps was willing to sign a one-year deal and then let Zimmer take over in 2018. I don’t think trading pitching to upgrade the outfield would be the smart thing to do especially with the starting rotation locked in with team-friendly contracts.
I’m also not ready to anoint Almonte as the full-time starting center fielder on this team and move Naquin over to right field to platoon with Guyer and essentially say goodbye to Chisenhall. Although he’s served his time, an 80-game suspension for performance enhancing substances puts Almonte and the team in a risky position. If he were to test positive another time, he’s banned for a 162 games, so there’s that to consider. Hopefully, that won’t be the case and Almonte has put that behind him, but despite all good intentions it still has to be a factor when considering Almonte’s value, even if it’s a small one.
Naquin and his good arm probably would be much better eventually as a rightfielder rather than in center, but he has limited experience there and who knows if he declines at the plate in 2017 after having a fantastic start to career before fading down the stretch in September as teams discovered he wasn’t the best at hitting a fastball.
Barring any big free agent signings or trades, I see the lineup in the outfield as Brantley getting most of the time in left field and occasionally serving as the DH especially if Mike Napoli isn’t re-signed. Naquin plays against right-handers in center and Guyer gets some playing time in left and right field. Almonte, a switch-hitter can play all three positions and ideally is best as a fourth/fifth outfielder. Chisenhall would get most of the time in right field, but Almonte and Guyer can play there when a lefty is on the mound. It also is interesting to note that Chisenhall made three appearances in center field in 2016 and wasn’t too bad in his limited time at that position. He could also get some additional playing time in center field at some point in 2017, if someone like Rajai Davis isn’t added to the team.
As an aside, I think it is a longshot that Napoli will be back with the club in 2017 especially due to his price tag likely to be higher or looking for a multiyear deal and that the team probably wants to give Brantley some easier days as the DH. It’s also not safe to assume that Brantley will play like his old self in 2017. Hopefully, he’ll return to full health next year, but even if he’s healthy, Brantley missed almost an entire season, so who really knows if he’ll return to an all-star caliber player? I think that’s a tough assumption to make.
Despite some fans growing tired of Chisenhall never fully living up to his credentials as a first-round draft pick, he’s turned into a solid MLB player who has found his role as good fielding outfielder who can produce quality at-bats in the lower part of the lineup against right-handed pitching. He also has decent speed, is a good baserunner and keeps his nose out of trouble. Basically, the Indians know what they have in Chisenhall. With the uncertainty of Brantley and unless there is a significant addition or additions through free agency or trade, there is no logical reason why the Indians shouldn’t keep Chisenhall on the team in 2017.