Cleveland is off to a fast start. They are 7 -2 and in sole possession of first place in the AL Central. Hurray! But with every acknowledgment of this fact comes the immediate warning that the season is too young to make any real judgments. They could easily go on a five game losing streak, and we are back to square one. The quick start still doesn't guarantee a winning record in the month of April.
I have read several articles about Boston's slow start. The most reasonable pessimism that I read was the idea of Dave Cameron over at Fangraphs. The idea was to take the winning percentage you thought the team would have before the season started and assume that they play at that percentage from this point forward. I think that idea would also work as an application of reasonable optimism for Cleveland. Take your prediction for Cleveland's winning percentage and assume they play at the percentage starting today.
There is reason that I am writing about Cleveland's hot start in a post that promises to be about Jason Donald. Just like it is too early to make judgments about Cleveland after 9 games. No one should change their views of Jack Hannahan based on 9 games. After 9 games, Jack Hannahan is hitting .286/.355/.536 with 2 home runs. This far exceeds anyone's expectations. He has been playing very solid defense. That is not surprising. We have been getting the defense we expected.
If you want to be reasonably optimistic about Hannahan's year, I suggest taking your predictions for his year and assume he plays at those numbers from this point forward.
Before we get to the argument for Jason Donald at third, let me offer responses to a couple of arguments for keeping Jack as the starter.
Argument #1 for Hannahan: (Paul Hoynes is one person that has made this argument.) Maybe Jack Hannahan is the next Casey Blake. Casey bounced around before getting a chance to start and turned into a solid major leaguer. This is a version of the lightning in a bottle argument.
The response to this is two-fold. One, Casey was 27, when Cleveland made him their starter. Hannahan is 31. Players typically peak at age 27. Even if Hannahan is a bit of a late bloomer, it is very unlikely that his game is going to improve from this point forward.
Two, Blake had never been giving the opportunity to get consistent major league at bats before Cleveland made him a starter. Hannahan has over 1K major league plate appearances and a career .226 BA. Moreover, Oakland gave Hannahan a full year as a starter at third in '08. He did bat .305/.352/.451 in the month of July in '08, but Jack hit only .218/.305/.342 over the full year.
The idea behind this argument is that maybe we get lucky, you know, catch lightning in a bottle. I think that is exactly what has happened. However, I think the bottle is really, really tiny.
Argument #2 for Hannahan: (This argument comes from Nino Collo over at the Tribe Daily.) The argument here is that Jack Hannahan has earned the starting job. He has done everything we could ask both on offense and defense. In light of his play, he deserves the job. (Collo doesn't explicitly mention spring training, but Hannahan played well all spring as well. So, Hannahan has play well in 9 regular season games and all spring.) This is a version of the argument from merit.
I respectfully disagree, and let me use Lonnie Chisenhall to explain why.
I don't think Chisenhall could have earned the starting position this spring. Even if Chisenhall hit 1.000 and played spotless defense, he would not have earned the starting job at third. To have earned the starting job out of spring training, Lonnie needed to play better last year. He needed to tear up AA pitching and earn a trip during the year to Columbus. Chisenhall had a good but not great year at Canton. To deserve the starting third base job, Lonnie needed a great '10 and a good spring. He had one but not the other.
My response to the argument that Hannahan has earned the job at third is the same to my thoughts on Chisenhall. Jack hit .237 in AAA last year. If Hannahan wanted to earn the starting job at third, he needed to play better last year.
That doesn't mean that I don't think that he can't earn the starting spot. But I think he will need to continue to play well in whatever opportunities he gets for the next couple of months, and Donald will have to be struggling. Also, I do agree that Hannahan's play has earned him something. I think that deserves to be on the team, and he deserves at bats of the bench against righties.
The argument for Jason Donald
This is not a merit argument. I don't think Donald deserves the starting spot based on past performance.
My argument is that Donald is age 26. He has hit .253/.312/.378 in 325 PAs. He could put up better numbers than this. How much better? I don't know. But I think Cleveland should try to find out what they have in Donald. Call this the Matt LaPorta argument.
By giving Donald a full year at third, we will have a pretty good idea what type of player he is. If he can't hit, you make sure that he focuses on his defense. The result would be a younger Hannahan. But what if he can put up a .275/.350/.400 line? Those numbers are all lower than his career minor league numbers. That modest optimism might make Donald the best choice for third or second next year.
Ideally, Chisenhall and Kipnis continue to develop and earn the starting jobs at third and second, respectively. But if one or both struggle and aren't major league ready next year, Cord Phelps and Jason Donald would be leading candidates to replace them.
We will learn nothing about Donald by sending him to the minors. Jason has almost 1.7k minor league PAs. We have a good idea what he can do against minor league pitchers.
I think that we should give a full year to LaPorta and Donald to see what we have. This would be their make or break years. If they fail, then we look at players to replace them over the winter. But if they play well, we see how they fit into the 2012 team.