GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Lonnie Chisenhall had overcome two injuries and looked as though he was on his way to a career year when the third one hit.
“The injury stopped everything, especially for how long it lasted,” Chisenhall said of a right calf strain he sustained on the final day of the first half that sidelined him for nearly two months and left him as an unproductive bench player during the Indians’ Division Series loss to the Yankees. “That was the nature of the injury, the severity of it, with the timetable. It was just tough. You learn from what happened last year, you focus on how you train and prepare yourself this year and play the season.”
What Chisenhall’s was able to accomplish in what amounted to half a season -- 82 games -- was still impressive. He batted .288 and fell one shy of his career high with 12 home runs, and six shy (53) of his top RBI total.
“Last year, offensively, was by far his best year. He was a force,” manager Terry Francona said. “He was on pace to make the All-Star team, in my opinion, and we missed him when he went down.”
Chisenhall, the Indians’ first-round draft pick in 2008, saw his career begin to stall at third base -- the position he broke into the majors playing. He made the move to right field in 2015 and found new life.
“It’s interesting because, as guys mature ... He played third, but from all accounts he really didn’t enjoy it,” Francona said. “(He) goes to right and just loves it, but now through maturity he’s able to, like, I’m convinced if we have a need, he could play first, third, he could probably go to short and at some point that might save us a roster move because of his ability to do that. And he does it willingly, where maybe three, four years ago, he probably didn’t enjoy it very much. I just think that’s maturity and confidence. His offensive performance last year was by far his best we’ve seen.”
“Third was always a difficult position,” Chisenhall said. “The infield’s difficult, the same thing with catchers. If you’re putting in a lot of time defensively, it does take away from your offense or bad days defensively can carry over. You hate to say it, but I’ve enjoyed my offense a little more since moving to the outfield. I know it’s definitely turned what I was doing around.
“Sometimes it’s (a) smooth (transition) and sometimes not. I’m still learning nuances. I moved around a little bit last year, so it’s a lot of learning on the go. It wasn’t easy. The first year I had some success and then some hiccups in (2016) and some hiccups last year, but that happens. You just try to learn from it.”
Out in the field
Francona was asked how many outfielders he would carry on the 25-man roster.
“I don’t think we know,” he said. “Do we go with seven bullpen (guys), eight? Some of it’s going to depend on who it is. Are we platooning? Are we not? Things like that. Without about 10 days to go in camp, we’ll start to think about stuff, but it’s so far off now. So much can happen. I think it’s more important right now to spend our time and get a look at everybody here and then when the camp gets smaller, those types of things, we can begin thinking about it.
“Some of it may be determined by how far away (Michael) Brantley is (from playing). Is he a handful of games, a week away, or is he a month away? Some of that could determine it too.”
A host of players, including veterans Rajai Davis and Melvin Upton Jr., are competing for two, possibly three spots -- one of them as the starter in left field alongside center fielder Bradley Zimmer and Chisenhall.
Francona said infielder Erik Gonzalez was fine after leaving Wednesday’s game with an ankle contusion. Gonzalez was cleared to play Thursday, but was not scheduled to start, so the Indians gave him the day off.
Gonzalez is the frontrunner to win the utility infield job over Gio Urshela, but his spring training performance won’t tip the scales either way, according to Francona.
“We know what Gonzi can do,” Francona said of the 26-year-old Gonzalez, who hit .255 with four homers and 11 RBIs in 60 games for the Indians last year. “His batting average isn’t going to matter whether he makes the team or not. It’s going to be what complements our team the best. I think you can make mistakes by taking the guy that has the highest batting average. Sometimes that’s hard for players to understand because they come in and they’re competing and they’re like, ‘Man, I did so well.’ It’s gotta fit your team.”
MVP finalist Jose Ramirez split last season batting fifth (63 times) and third (55) the majority of time, but Francona’s not ready to commit to either this year.
“I like him anywhere, I really do,” Francona said. “He’s a good hitter. He could hit first, second, third, he could hit anywhere. Some of where he hits is dependent on the other guys. He’s a great guy to protect people, but at the same time we want to protect him, too. My guess is that he will hit a little higher more often than not, especially with (Yonder) Alonso here.”
It really doesn’t matter who wins the final two spots in the rotation race between right-handers Josh Tomlin and Mike Clevinger and lefty Ryan Merritt.
With two-time and reigning Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer at the top, odds are good the Indians’ starting staff will still be one of the American League’s best.
“We work well as a unit together,” Kluber said. “We’re all on the same page, trying to help each other out. That goes a long way, as opposed to having five individuals who are going out there to pitch their day. It’s a collective group. That goes along with the whole team, team chemistry.”
Cleveland’s starters led the AL last year with a 3.52 ERA and 1,066 strikeouts -- 65 more than second-ranked Boston.
Francona said Mike Napoli would make his exhibition debut Saturday or Sunday at the earliest.
“He’s gotta run the bases twice. We’ve gotta be fair to him, too,” Francona said. “(Today) would have been a perfect day, just because Edwin (Encarnacion) and Yonder are both playing (Thursday), but he’s not ready to play, so we’ll wait a couple more days.”
Napoli signed a minor league contract with the team Wednesday, but isn’t expected to make the Opening Day roster. He is being showcased for other clubs after spending the winter as a free agent in a cold market.
Carrasco, Andrew Miller, Cody Allen and Ben Taylor are scheduled to make their debuts today. Newly-acquired reliever Matt Belisle will make his first appearance Saturday. ... Friday, 3:05 p.m. vs. Rangers (Indians.com). Bauer (0-0, 0.00 ERA) vs. Mendez (0-0, 0.00).