Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 3/13/12

After sniffing success through the first half of last season, the Cleveland Indians have fully shifted into contender mode. Trading away promising, young starters Drew Pomeranz and Alex White for right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez cemented that transition for the organization, and the thirst for a postseason berth continued this winter with an early acquisition of veteran Derek Lowe.

Due to their expectations to contend in the AL Central and for a postseason berth, the spring training battle between Jack Hannahan and Lonnie Chisenhall for the starting third baseman role this year is incredibly interesting. It pits an average guy in Hannahan (who offers little in terms of upside or, historically, offensive production) against a former top prospect in Chisenhall (who is inexperienced and struggled last year, but has legitimate upside).

Hannahan surprised many people last year, accumulating a career-high +2.4 WAR season largely on the strength of his plus-defense, despite spending the entire 2010 season in Triple-A with the Red Sox and Mariners. His offensive numbers also improved significantly from his previous two seasons in the big leagues. For the first time since 2007, he was league-average with the bat. His wRC+ was exactly 100, and the .308 BABIP suggests his performance was unaided by significant luck on balls in play. That suggests his improvements at the plate could be expected to continue into the upcoming season.

In terms of projection, the 32-year-old third baseman is what he is at this point. He provides one of the best gloves in the game at third base, has a decent walk rate, and can occasionally poke one out of the park. Significant improvement should not be expected at this point in his career.

Chisenhall, on the other hand, was the 25th-ranked prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America prior to the 2011 season. He only posted a .303 wOBA in his first 223 big league plate appearances last year, but much of that can likely be attributed to the expected struggles of a 22-year-old attempting to handle major league pitching for the first time in his career. His walk rate (3.6%) was significantly lower than his minor league averages, while his strikeout rate (22.0%) was worse than his minor league numbers.

The main culprit for those extreme shifts in plate discipline was a 42.3% O-Swing%. Only 14 of 355 players who had at least 200 plate appearances in 2011 swung at more pitches outside the zone. The Indians can reasonably expect his plate discipline to improve, however, as his O-Swing% in Triple-A last year was only 9.6% (via Minor League Central). Of course, minor league plate discipline numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, as the resources available in their parks are significantly inferior to their major league equivalents, but the vast difference between the 42.3% and 9.6% suggests a major shift in approach that would still exist with a reasonable margin for error taken into account.

So, who ultimately gets the Opening Day nod?

Manny Acta has stated that the race is entirely in Chisenhall’s hands this spring:

“He’s going to have to convince us that he’s the guy — that’s plain and simple,” Acta said. “If he convinces us that he’s ready to be the guy for us, then we’ll make that decision.

If spring training numbers for Chisenhall are going to be the driving force behind the third base decision, he is off to a decent start. He has played in six games and has a .300/.364/.300 triple-slash line thus far in the Cactus League season. The batting average is decent, but he has not managed a single extra-base hit as of yet.

The ideal situation for the Indians appears to be breaking camp with Chisenhall at third base and moving Hannahan to a utility role on the bench. ZiPS likes Chisenhall (.255/.312/.404) more than Hannahan (.223/.303/.347) at the plate, and Chisenhall still possesses the upside to be even better than those numbers in 2012 if his plate discipline more closely mirrors his career minor league numbers. That upside potential is important because the Indians finished fifteen games behind the Detroit Tigers last season, and that was without the addition of Prince Fielder. Cleveland will need a better team than they put on the field in 2011. Simply sticking with the status quo in Hannahan will not help close the gap between them and Detroit, even with a better starting rotation.

Furthermore, starting Chisenhall at third base would allow the Indians to have a plus-defensive utility man on the roster in Hannahan and allow Jason Donald to transition to more of a secondary bench piece, rather than an all-purpose utility player. His defensive numbers at shortstop and second base have been extremely underwhelming since he got his first cup of coffee in the big leagues in 2010, and his .318/.364/.402 performance from last season was largely aided by a .423 BABIP. The Indians would be much better off with Hannahan as the primary utility infielder.

If Chisenhall continues to struggle at the plate and simply cannot handle big league pitching at this point in his career, however, he can be easily sent to Triple-A for further development, and the Indians can plug Hannahan into the starting lineup with the confidence that he can still be a useful piece as the Indians attempt to reach their goal of a postseason berth.

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