How did we arrive at a place where fan opinion has tilted so far negative upon any mention about two of the great players of this decade for the Cleveland Indians? Discussions about Michael Brantley and Jason Kipnis should elicit wonder of their place in franchise history or excitement of future contributions towards what promises to be a World Series contending ballclub. However, instead, any positive memories or hope for the future from them has been displaced with anger, resentment, and frustration.
It would be folly to state those new emotions are without some merit. The demise of Brantley in fan opinion began on the fateful day Danny Salazar allowed a wretched call throw him off on the mound tipping off a domino effect. The Indians eliminated themselves from AL Wild Card contention on September 22 2015 and Brantley had his first major injury among the fallout. Here is how WFNY described it:
Oh, the silent majesty of a September night… The clean, cool chill against the backdrop of a baseball game… An umpire with his chest protector, emptying a chemical toilet upon the game.
Here’s the deal. Danny Salazar was cruising. Twenty-two pitches in and the first eight Twin batters had gone directly back to the bench. Eduardo Escobar had managed to make his at bat a bit more difficult, but Salazar fooled him on the eighth pitch for what was obviously strike three. Except, a flute without holes is not a flute, and an obvious strike erroneously called a ball gave Escobar first base.
The next batter was Aaron Hicks and he drove a deep fly ball into the gap in left-center field. Michael Brantley sprinted at full speed and laid out for the ball, which he caught firmly in his glove as his right (glove) shoulder crashed into the ground. Sadly, the ball popped out on contact with the unforgiving surface. Worse, Brantley injured his right shoulder and left the game after attempting to bat the next inning.
And, to top it off, all three Twins runs were the result of the extended inning.
Offseason shoulder surgery would lead to pushing the rehabilitation schedule too hard, leading to only 11 games being played by Brantley and a subsequent offseason surgery the next year. 2017 appeared to be the where Dr. Smooth regained his foothold on the appreciation of the Northcoast only to have an ankle injury derail his season. Again, a similar pattern being displayed where what was thought to be a minor injured turned into weeks, turned into offseason surgery.
Still, under normal circumstances, there would be a steady force of fans holding firm on the idea the injury suffered was not related to his previous surgeries, so there should be significant hope he can return to his above average batting ways he displayed in the 90 games he played in 2017. Perhaps even a few affirmations holding that his All-Star level performances in 2014 and 2015 were not so long ago with a chance for a return to those heights; or near them.
Normal circumstances do not align themselves with Brantley. The team rushed his ankle rehabilitation and decided to place him on the ALDS roster as a veteran bat ahead of promising young players such as Yandy Diaz. When Edwin Encarnacion suffered his own ankle injury, the team was left exposed to attempt to obtain regular playing time out of the hobbled Brantley as they exited the first round of the American League playoffs. Whether or not the Indians had a quid pro quo on opting into Brantley’s contract for 2018 for his willingness to play through an injury requiring surgery, the appearance was there giving fans the opportunity to evaluate the opportunity cost of the $11 million every time a player from the 2017 Indians signed with a new team.
The arrival at the point of constant negativity with Kipnis is not quite as clear cut. He had always been prone to ridiculous streaks of greatness surrounded by periods of less than stellar play often attributed to minor ailments obtained from the style of play on the field that had earned him the nickname Dirtbag. Entering his age 30 season, it should not have been a huge surprise to see Kipnis suffer through injuries holding him to a career low in games; the exact same total of 90 games that Brantley played.
There were other factors at work though. His bat was below average all season putting him on a level with Yan Gomes and Bradley Zimmer rather than Carlos Santana. The Kipnis injury confirmed suspicions of the possibility of the double-play combination of Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez being greater than anything Kipnis could provide when manning second. With the promising exit velocity and long-term potential of the gargantuan Yandy Diaz at third base, the infield became crowded even for a returning two time All Star.
Not to be deterred, the great center field experiment began. Kipnis had his moments manning center and did not embarrass himself out there. He still had the look of a 30 year old player who had not played the position since college. His routes were not crisp nor was his arm a plus. In a late year series against the Minnesota, the Twins took the extra base on him continuously. He then entered the ALDS as the Tribe’s starting center fielder despite a mere 11 games under his belt.1
The offseason has found Kipnis on the outside with organization statements laying claim that he is a man without a position, reports of the New York Mets turning down a salary dump trade for him, and now half-hearted quotes he could return to second base (where Jose Ramirez’s agent is on record as wanting him moved with most believing it due to his client’s preference to remain at second).
Despite everything, Brantley and Kipnis deserve to be cheered. The players have been with the organization since 2009 giving nine and seven years with the MLB club respectively;2 Brantley being added in as the player-to-be-named in the CC Sabathia deal, Kipnis being drafted out of Arizona State. Both are multi-time All-Star players with MVP votes being received in multiple seasons.
Even better, they should be expected to be positive components of the 2018 Tribe lineup. Projection systems believe them to return to their above average hitting ways based on historical data of similar players. It is also not outlandish to believe the 31 year old players to be able to regain their All-Star level of play. There are issues with playing time for young players to consider, but those issues tend to work themselves out over the course of a 162 game schedule. If Diaz or Allen or anyone else is deserving of playing time, then the odds are in favor they will receive an opportunity. If not, it would be because the MLB players stay healthy and productive. Not a bad thing.
The offseason for the Indians has been frustrating as more good players have left than been signed. The 2018 World Series is within reach, so despite what will be a record Opening Day payroll and some intelligence of keeping whatever limited budget remains open to take advantage of tanking team’s trading expiring contracts, fans want to see the Indians take advantage of the limited window and bring a close to the championship drought that is entering the 70th season. But, when it comes to Brantley and Kipnis, how about we celebrate what they have meant to the team and that the Tribe has been able to retain them for 2018 where they are expected to have good seasons. They have both received some bad fortune and had some rough times, but we should not ignore they have also had fantastic careers. If we are going to slant towards irrational thoughts, then let’s have irrational hope they regain their heights rather than have irrational fear they will be an anchor on the team.
Go Kipnis! Go Brantley! Go Tribe!