Indians

Finding Jason Kipnis: Part 1

Since 2011, Jason Kipnis has been one of the really good Cleveland Indians’ stories. He was drafted by the Indians in 2009, and made a complete mockery of the minor league system, that really needs to be discussed more…so let us.

In 2010, Kipnis rocketed through High A Carolina and Akron, and ended up playing for the Columbus Clippers in the playoffs. That’s three levels in one year, and he improved at all three, and it ended in a ridiculous fashion. He led the Clippers to the IL Championship in that series. He went 7-for-18, with two doubles, a triple, a homer, and six runs. Oh yeah, he hit for the cycle in the clinching game…in four at bats…by the sixth inning. In the Triple-A Championship, his very next game, he went 3-for-4, with a double, triple, and a homer. Yeah, in his fifth Triple-A game, Kipnis came a single short of back-to-back cycles, in two championship clinching games.

That’s Paul Bunyan stuff…complete with the blue ox.

After a short stint in Columbus the following year, Jason Kipnis debuted with the Indians, and has never looked back. Since then, other than a bumpy 2014 season, Kipnis has been a lock for a 4+ WAR season. He’s adapted to second, adapted his offense to whichever spot in the lineup that the Indians have needed, and has publicly agreed to whatever manager Terry Francona has needed of his All-Star second baseman, including a late-season move to center field last year. In so many ways on-the-field, Jason Kipnis is everything that the Cleveland Indians have always been about.

But it all seemed to come crashing down in 2017.

Today, I dive into a two-part series on Kipnis…his tumultuous 2017 season, his roller coaster 2018 hot stove season, and dive into what his likely production will be in 2019.

Cleaning the Deck…

On a cool November day in 2016, Jason Kipnis held his annual “shoe toss” outside of Progressive Field to thank the fans for a magical 2016 season. Kipnis, ever productive, had frustratingly watched his favorite childhood team, the Chicago Cubs, beat the only professional team he has ever known, the Cleveland Indians, in a magical seven-game series. But this was his way to put an exclamation point on his season by giving away his cleats, his baseball bats, some fatheads, and whatever else was in his locker that he was ready to get rid of. To a fan, this is what it’s all about when the season comes to an end. A player that was drafted, developed, and built by the home team, celebrating the end of the season by giving something back to the fans.

Not only did the move provide goodwill to the fans, but for Kipnis, it was likely a catharsis. No, it wasn’t a season to forget, but a season to build upon. After back-to-back near-5 fWAR seasons, with new star sidekicks in Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor, an ace-laden rotation, and perhaps the best bullpen in all of baseball, the sky was the limit.

But in giving away the content of his locker, it was likely a way to clean the mechanism, because if there is a player in the locker room that took the loss in that World Series personal, it was the Indians scrappy second baseman. Sure, Kipnis has a white collar baseball pedigree (he was drafted in the second round via the Indians in the 2009 draft), but his blue collar mentality and work ethic has made Kipnis a fan favorite. He wears his emotions on his sleeve, and having to put up with family and friends that were likely pulling, at least partly, for the Cubs couldn’t be easy. Hell, Kipnis grew up in the same neighborhood as Steve Bartman. This winter wasn’t going to be easy. So this was his way of washing his hands clean, and getting ready for the Indian’s 2017 revenge tour.

Kipnis knew that the Indians window was wide open. The World Series loss was likely the first chess move in a series of moves that would end up with a World Championship. Kipnis had been with the organization for seven years, one of the longest tenures on the Major League roster, and the systematic build to these moments were always done with Kipnis a major player.

It was time for the Indians, and in many way, it was time for Kipnis’s Indians to take the final step. And then 2017 happened, and as far as steps go towards a World Championship, what’s the old saying… “one step forward, and two steps back?”

The spiral…

It’s important to note how important it is for players to experience spring training. Perhaps there are too many games. Perhaps for some players, it just offers up an opportunity to get injured. But the grand scheme of spring training is that it gets the 25-man roster ready. Unfortunately for Kipnis, the 2017 spring training was where his season went to die.

Kipnis had a cavalcade of struggles that hampered that 2017 season, and left several questions heading into the 2018 season. There was that shoulder injury in spring that kept him from the lineup until April 21, and slowed down his start to the season. For a player like Kipnis, a grinder who works through everything, this created a chasm, making the end of April and May his spring. Who knows if the shoulder was ever right immediately afterwards, and who knows if Kipnis ever felt right enough to figure it out. He came in having to hit sixth in the order, when he was used to hitting at the top, which had to be a blow to his ego, but one he accepted. Perhaps he felt the team migrating away from him, and only a few months after back-to-back, all-star worthy seasons. But maybe none of this was true, and even if it was…a little…a player like Kipnis was likely pushing hard to regain his 2016 form.

The World Series was so close.

As he slowly began to regain his pre-2017 form, he injured his right hamstring in early July that kept him out nearly a month, then re-injured the same hamstring, hopped in-and-out of the line-up, and ended up back on the DL again, for the third time, in mid-August. This lasted three more weeks, and when Kipnis finally was able to return, he came back to a difficult situation.

He had lost his position.

Jose Ramirez was in the midst of an MVP run, and while third base had been JRam’s regular position for the majority of his time as a regular with the Indians, his best position has always been second base. Ramirez moved over to second to cover Kipnis throughout his injury-riddled season, and then Terry Francona brought up Giovanny Urshela to cover third base after Kipnis was injured in July, and then brought up Yandy Diaz in late August to see if either were solid candidates for the playoffs. Both showed enough merit at the position to keep JRam at second…

…and Kipnis was left in limbo.

In an insanely weird situation, one of the anchors of the team over the previous seven seasons didn’t have a position to play.

Welcome to playoff baseball.

The center field experiment…

So they put him in center.

And sure, we could talk about how Kipnis played center in college, and we could talk about how Kipnis played center when he first came to the Indians, but Kipnis isn’t a center fielder anymore. But he just needed a position to play to get him into the lineup. With Bradley Zimmer injured, it was the only position in which Kipnis could lay claim to and be relevant heading into the postseason. Francona suggest the move to his veteran infielder, and Kipnis agreed…mostly.

“The competitor in me thinks that if I’m healthy and playing, that we’re not even having this conversation,” Kipnis said. “But at the same time, you adjust accordingly to the way the year’s gone, and with injuries and everything, you just try to fill in where you can. There’s no doubt that Josey and Gio are fantastic defenders. I’m not blind. I can see it. They’re making awesome plays night in and night out.

“So I’ve just got to find where I fit in at this point. I think I’ve still got a lot of good baseball in me, whether it’s in the outfield or infield.”

Do I think Kipnis liked this? Hell no I don’t think he liked it at all. Kipnis is a competitor, and a fierce one at that. When you cover the Indians as long as I have, you hear things here and there through the community of writers. Kipnis is a firebrand for sure, and I’m sure behind closed doors, this had to drive him insane.

But he was game.

Team first.

World Series.

Give me a glove, a ball, and a bat coach, and I’ll get it done.

But imagine a player who had been on the DL all season, who played in less than 100 games, had struggled offensively and defensively, now having to learn a brand new position, center field, in September, so he could play in the playoffs. You say yes. Your ego says, “I’m their best option.” He probably was their best option.

I mean, we all know how this story is going to end, right? Kip went 4-for-22 in his five games, and while he didn’t look bad in center, it was evident based on route angles that it was only have been a matter of time until troubles surfaced. Late September and October isn’t an optimum time for anyone to learn a new position, let alone a player who was frustrated by the situation, struggled with health, and still hadn’t found his swing.

There probably wasn’t a player in the game of baseball more ready for the 2017-2018 offseason than Jason Kipnis. He could get healthy. He could lay claim to his old position at second. He could get back to those near-5 fWAR seasons from 2015 and 2016.

But there he was again, for his yearly “shoe toss.” If the catharsis was the mantra for 2016, then closure was likely the 2017 theme. It was time to put things to bed, and get back to business.

But of course, things are never that easy, right?

The hot stove…

Where Jason Kipnis would play has most definitely been murky since October. Would he return to second, or would JRam, a better defender, stay there? Would he move into the outfield again? Would he take at bats at first base? Is there anywhere on the diamond that is left for him to play?

The Indians picked up the option on Michael Brantley and almost immediately said, “Brantley is a left fielder.” Bradley Zimmer is back healthy, Greg Allen is knocking on the door, and center field isn’t a really good option anyways. Yonder Alonso was signed, likely shutting the door at third.

And then…

Well that’s fun.

Anyone who follows the Indians organization knows that Kipnis wears his frustration on his sleeve. He’s a feisty player, and has fashioned himself as a leader of the team almost since he first arrived, in 2011. And Kipnis has earned that place in the locker room.

But the situation is fairly clear for the Indians: Kipnis’s contract took a big bump in 2018 and 2019, and while that deal is still a good one for 5 fWAR Kipnis, it’s not for 90-game, .7 fWAR Kipnis. With options available at second, and really everywhere (well…maybe not the outfield) that Kipnis can play, dealing him makes sense.

But sometimes things happen for a reason. Sometimes the market shifts, and deals can’t be made. Sometimes $13.6 million feels like $25 million. Sometimes dumping salary becomes impossible for a club, and a player like Kipnis stays put, when the team wants to free up some money. For Kipnis, that has to be torture.

In a conversation with MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian, Kipnis discussed his offseason.

“Why would I want to be traded?” Kipnis said in an interview with MLB.com. “We’re a 100-win team in the middle of our window. Why would I want to go anywhere else? And it’s with all my best friends. I want to be with the Cleveland Indians. I’ve been here forever. I’m comfortable here. And I’ve always wanted to finish what we started.

“We got close and we’re getting closer. Why would I want to leave now? At the same time, I understand the business side of it.”

Kipnis is driven, and perhaps the trade talks have become an extra motivator for the Indians second baseman. It appears as though the Indians are fairly committed to giving him his old position for now. But is that the best place for Kipnis?

Tomorrow, the realities of Kipnis in 2018.