On Monday afternoon, the Pittsburgh Pirates waded into the shallows of the free agent pool and signed Lonnie Chisenhall to a 1 year/$2.75M that is laden with plate appearance incentives. (More on that later.) Chisenhall will be your 2019 Pittsburgh Pirates Opening Day right fielder. The excitement amongst the fanbase is palpable!
But Lonnie Chisenall is a solid, no-frills signing. There are factions, very large and very vocal factions, of the fanbase that reflexively characterize every move the Pirates make as being cheap. There are plenty of examples of that, but this is not one of them. The Pirates needed a player capable of playing RF for anywhere from 1 to 3 months (hopefully no longer for Polanco’s health) and then be a solid option of the bench. With Chisenhall, the Pirates have accomplished that task.
The lefty-swinging Chisenhall has a platoon split against fellow sinister-sided pitchers, but it’s not outrageous. His career wRC+ is 92 against lefties and 104 against righties.
For the 30-year old Chisenhall, his lack of ability to stay healthy has been the bugaboo of his career. Chisenhall has totaled more than 400 plate appearances just twice in his career — 2014 (533) and 2016 (418). Last season, a calf injury hampered him for most of the year and he only totaled 95 plate appearances. His contract has a $250K bonus for reaching 250, 300, 350, and 400 plate appearances, then a $500K for each of the 450, 500, 550, and 600 plate appearance plateaus. If he reaches 600 PA’s, that would be $3M extra in bonuses.
Most likely, Chisenhall will be somewhere in the 400-450 range. This is presuming that Polanco misses half the year (300 plate appearances) and then Chisenhall gets spot starts and late-inning substitutions for defensive purposes. That would make his 2019 salary $3.75M, a very fair price for a cromulent RF option.
The move to PNC Park may benefit his offensive numbers, as well. TPOP scribe Alex Stumpf showed this overlay of Chisenhall’s fly balls from the past two seasons on top of PNC Park’s layout:
Over the last two years, Chisenhall is 8th among all outfielders in fly ball percentage (min. 350 PAs).
? Alex Stumpf (@AlexJStumpf) November 27, 2018
Chisenhall is solid defensively in RF and a far cry better than Gregory Polanco, which could lead to a healthy Polanco being substituted late in the game for defensive purposes. From 2015-2018, Chisenhall has been a +9 in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and a 4.8 in UZR/150. He came up through the minors as a 3B, but he’s hasn’t regularly played there since 2015 and was subpar defensively, so unless he’s needed on an emergency basis he’s a RF’er primarily.
Neal Huntington is notoriously risk-averse, to the point that he must have been sedated at the time of making the Chris Archer trade last July, so rather than heading into 2019 hoping that Jordan Luplow was sufficient to handle a starting RF job (spoiler alert — he’s not), he went with a player that has a known floor. His upside may not be spectacular, but unless he’s injured he’s not going to be the reason if the Pirates struggle. Chisenhall’s career line of .268/.320/.427 is good for a 102 wRC+. Pretty much league average.
I’m a little disappointed in that I was lowkey hoping that Pablo Reyes would get the look in RF. That would have set off a delightfully profane set of reactions to perceived cheapness and lack of wanting to win, but I’m not sure Reyes is worse than Chisenhall at this point. That said, I’m good with this move. Think of Chisenhall like a bookmark you place in your reading material to keep your place.
Now get a real major league caliber shortstop and let’s get ready to play ball…four months from now.