For baseball fans who have not been paying attention to the Indians this off-season, there might not seem to be competition for who will start at third this Spring, but that doesn't make it any less real. Lonnie Chisenhall is the incumbent and was once considered a top prospect, but has struggled during his first three partial seasons and hasn't been able to keep his starting role throughout an entire season despite being given multiple chances. This has generally been a situation where if he had just taken over with authority, there would be no question. While he will almost certainly get another real chance this Spring, there are a few serious contenders. Mike Aviles finished last season as the regular starter and is back in the running again. Carlos Santana has also been working out this Winter at third after seeing a way he could possibly stay in the field after being removed as the starting catcher. In addition, the Indians are bringing about every single infielder they can find in their minor league system or free agency.
The best place to start this discussion is with Aviles, because he is likely the best defensive and one of the best offensive options at third. Comparing him directly to Chisenhall, Aviles has been much more consistent, but lacks the power and is considerably older. Age could be a big factor in keeping Chisehall around as he won't be a free agent until after 2017 while Aviles will be a free agent after this season. This should make the Indians want to keep Chisenhall at least on the roster if they think he has any future at all. The second part of the Aviles discussion is his use as a versatile utility infielder. With trade rumors always swirling around Asdrubal Cabrera and Francisco Lindor not quite ready yet, Aviles could be needed in a starting role at short stop, which would make him unable to also fill the hole at third. All of these arguments make it seem that even if Aviles is used at third more often than Chisenhall, both should remain on the roster.
The Santana experiment was his own doing after finding he was replaced as starting catcher by Yan Gomes and was facing a season off the field as the starting DH. He is obviously the best hitter among the contenders, but as has been seen many times before, baseball players generally struggle with their offensive production when learning a new position. While initially it seemed no one was taking the transition very seriously, the Indians have since helped him along and have said recently that he will be given a chance to compete for the job this Spring. Of course, just like with Aviles, this is not a competition for a roster spot, just to decide who will play more games at third.
Looking at these three main options, there would be a way for Santana and Aviles to both do their regular jobs and still completely replace Chisenhall. If Aviles was considered the regular starter at third, Santana could take over one or two times a week when Aviles would be playing short or second. This would allow the Indians to rotate the DH, spreading off days to Cabrera, Gomes, Jason Kipnis and Nick Swisher. While this would be complicated and leave the Indians weak in the case of injury, it would give them an extra roster spot which Chris Antonetti and Terry Francona would like to give to Jason Giambi.
Outside of the obvious choices, the Indians are bringing a plethora of options into Spring Training. A quick glance shows Ryan Rohlinger, David Adams and Elliot Johnson coming into camp as minor league free agents with Erik Gonzalez and Jose Ramirez coming up from the Indians system. None of these are real solutions for starting third baseman, but all could be used as a utility man if Aviles is promoted.
Starting with the outsiders, Rohlinger, Adams and Johnson have one thing in common: none of them are anywhere near as good as Lonnie Chisenhall already is and all but Adams have less years of team control. It is possible that they are in camp as an incentive to Chisenhall to get his act in gear, but none look like a suitable replacement. Of them, Adams is the youngest and looks the most promising after playing 43 games with the Yankees last season. Of course, New York lost Kevin Youkilis to Japan and Alex Rodriguez to suspension this off-season, so if there was ever a team that shouldn't be getting rid of talented third basemen it is the Yankees. Most likely, they knew what they were doing when they released him.
The Indians internal options are much more attractive. Jose Ramirez spent a short time with the Tribe in 2013, but brought a ton of excitement with him. Primarily a base stealing second baseman, Ramirez has spent time at all three athletic infield positions and has been solid defensively. He brings a completely different game than Aviles, who is an all-around average hitter and Santana and Chisenhall, who focus on power. The Indians have no room at second, since Kipnis will be with the team at least through 2017, and no permanent place at short because of Lindor. With this being the case, Ramirez's only chances are at third, utility man or with another team. The combination of Lindor, Ramirez and Kipnis would be incredibly athletic, bringing a kind of speed to the Indians infield perhaps never before seen. They have tried lately with a more power based infield (Jhonny Peralta, Asdrubal Cabrera and Luis Valbuena from 2009 through 2010) and been unsuccessful, so maybe a speedier version is the way to go in the future.
Even with this fast future in mind, it seems a terrible waste to look past Chisenhall so soon. Already in his young career he has shown incredible power at times and that is a thing hard to come by on the current Indians squad. While his success has been limited, that is often the case in young players and possibly, the immediate success of Kipnis and Cabrera has jaded the Indians and their fans. Many times in the past, the Indians have given up on a top prospect too soon because there were no immediate results and this could be another one of those times. Chisenhall deserves to start at third no matter how his Spring goes with Aviles ready to back him up if things go wrong in April. The Santana experiment may work out, but don't expect him to fill in for more than a few games. He should already be spending at least two days at catcher each week to relieve Gomes and will likely play some first as well. With a place in the lineup every day, there is no reason for him to play third with other options available. As the Spring progresses, this situation will become clearer, but expect all three main participants to start the season on the 25 man roster in some capacity.
If none of the other options work out, the Indians have been working
Danny Salazar at third as well, just in case.