First-round draft choice Lonnie Chisenhall, and the key cog in the CC Sabathia trade and another first-round pick, Matt LaPorta, were optioned to Triple-A Columbus prior to Cleveland’s 7-1 loss Tuesday to the White Sox at Camelback Ranch.
The Indians also re-assigned outfielder Chad Huffman to minor league camp.
Despite batting just .205 (8-for-39) with three RBIs and a team-leading 16 strikeouts in 16 games, Chisenhall, the 29th overall selection in 2008, received a ringing endorsement from manager Manny Acta.
“This guy has been one of the youngest players at every level he’s been at,” Acta said. “Obviously, he needs to work on controlling the strike zone better, but we know he’s going to be the main guy for years to come. He just needs to play.”
Chisenhall, 23, had a monster spring last year, but started the season at Triple-A after Jack Hannahan won the third base job. He was promoted to take over for a struggling Hannahan in June and went on to bat .255 with seven home runs and 22 RBIs in 66 games for Cleveland.
Chisenhall wasn’t expected to make the team in 2011, but came to camp this year vying for the starting job that will once again go to Hannahan. The pressure of knowing he was competing for a job this spring may have contributed to his lack of production.
“Only he can answer that question,” Acta said. “It’s part of the game. You have to go through pressure situations. He just needs to play. He’s only had 250 at-bats at Triple-A.”
LaPorta, largely a disappointment since arriving in the Sabathia trade, did nothing to change that perception this spring, batting .167 (5-for-30) with two RBIs and 11 strikeouts in 14 games.
He and Huffman (.231 in 14 games) were part of a crowded race for the starting left fielder and extra outfielder jobs.
“The opportunity was there (for him),” Acta said. “If he would have showed up at camp and hit the way we feel he can hit, he would have had a good opportunity to grab that (left field) job. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen.
“He understands that he needs to continue to work on his swing and being more consistent.”
LaPorta, Cleveland’s regular first baseman the past two years, lost his hold on that spot after the Indians signed Casey Kotchman this offseason. The 27-year-old LaPorta hit .247 with 11 homers and 53 RBIs in 107 games in 2011.
“He continues to demonstrate spurts that he can be a quality middle of the lineup player,” general manager Chris Antonetti said. “We just need to see more consistency.”
The departure of LaPorta and Huffman leaves the Indians with six players — Shelley Duncan, Russ Canzler, Aaron Cunningham, Fred Lewis, Felix Pie and Ryan Spilborghs — competing for the two outfield jobs.
Duncan leads the team with five homers and 15 RBIs, but is batting just .195 (8-for-41) in 16 games. Canzler, the Triple-A International League’s Most Valuable Player in 2011, is batting .297 (11-for-37) with two RBIs in 15 games. They are the only players in the field that have produced offensively.
The decision on those spots, as well as the fifth starter, two bullpen openings and three bench players, are expected to become clearer when the Indians reduce their roster again after Thursday’s split-squad games in Goodyear and Scottsdale.
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