In what could very well be the final season for Jason Kipnis in Cleveland, the Indians are hoping for more of the vintage version.
And while this was essentially known due to the construction of the roster — specifically after the three-team trade that included infielder Yandy Diaz being sent to the Tampa Bay Rays — Kipnis will spend 2019 at second base, barring additional unforeseen changes.
Kipnis has ended the past two seasons in center field and has been a candidate to be moved to left field given the Indians’ dire need there. That three-team deal essentially ended that path, as it dealt Diaz (thus removing the option to play him at third and Jose Ramirez at second) and added Jake Bauers (who is likely to find more time at first base but is an option in left field). Kipnis is now most needed to man second base.
Indians manager Terry Francona confirmed to reporters in Goodyear, Arizona, that he informed Kipnis he’d again at least start the season in the infield.
“And he even offered to kind of try to go back and forth, which I appreciated,” Francona told reporters. “I don’t know how fair that is to him. And I told him, if something ever changed and we needed to — we’d talk to him.”
Kipnis will make $14.7 million in 2019 and then has a club option in his deal for 2020 valued at $16.5 million with a $2.5 million buyout. It would take a terrific season — along the lines of earning his third All-Star selection — to bring the Indians accepting that option into focus. In some ways, Kipnis is in a similar spot as he was at this time a year ago.
As spring training was rolling around last year, he was coming off an injury-riddled 2017 and wanted to return with a vengeance — a line that had been previously used by the Indians as well. But, the rebound tour never left the ground. Kipnis began 2018 in one of the worst slumps of his career and posted an OPS of .497 through the end of April. He did also have the highest line-drive percentage of his career at that point, so it wasn’t likely quite as bad as it seemed, but also that wasn’t telling the entire story. By mid-May, he was being moved down in the order, a decision he agreed was needed.
“I don’t have much of a leg to stand on,” Kipnis said at that time. “I know I’m a top-of-the-order guy. But I mean I didn’t even need to have the conversation with him. I know how Tito thinks. He thinks the same way with me. He knows I fit well in that two-hole, with being able to bunt and do everything. But even I told him, ‘I’ve got to give you something. I’m just not doing it right now.’ ”
Kipnis’ play from June 1 on is what might give the Indians some optimism. He was consistent, posting an OPS of at least .754 in each month and equaled that figure for his second-half OPS overall. Despite the horrid start, he still ended up as a 2.1 fWAR-player for the season.
Still, Kipnis is well removed from the 4-plus-fWAR seasons he posted in back-to-back years in 2015 and 2016, as well as his terrific 2013 season in which he earned his first of two All-Star selections.
The other question is how he’ll handle second base in what will be his age 32 season. It isn’t quite the ideal sample size, but last year Kipnis ranked 16th among the 18 qualified second baseman with -5 defensive runs saved but was also sixth with a 4.2 UZR/150.
Looking at the past four seasons combined, Kipnis ranked 11th out of 18 qualified second basemen with -2 defensive runs saved and was fifth with an overall defensive rating of 18.4. He’s been somewhere in the middle of the pack for most of his career.
As long as he can remain at that level defensively, it’s his work at the plate the Indians need the most in a lineup that has lost Yan Gomes and Michael Brantley and doesn’t yet have a clear offensive answer for their production.
“I think he’s got something to prove,” Francona told reporters in Arizona. “Even when you’ve been in the game seven or eight years, guys don’t like not being as good as they can be. They’ve got a lot of pride. I put him in that category.”
Ryan Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.