Several weeks ago I wrote about why Jason Kipnis will bounce back in 2015. I still stand by everything I wrote then; all the tools and abilities are there for Kipnis to bounce back to his 2013 numbers, or short of that even his 2012 numbers. But despite the positive outlook for Jason Kipnis there is still one possibility that needs to be addressed:
What if he doesn’t bounce back?
Last season, the Indians didn’t really have any good fallback options when Kipnis struggled. They used Mike Aviles when Kipnis was out injured in May, and by the time Jose Ramirez was deemed ready for a permanent big league promotion he was needed to play shortstop after the Asdrubal Cabrera trade. With Mike Aviles as their only alternative at second base, the Indians best move was to keep running Kipnis out there in hopes that he would get it going.
But that won’t be the case in 2015; Francisco Lindor is coming to Cleveland sooner than later. When he does inevitably force his way onto the big league roster, the Indians will have a roster crunch on their hands; in Kipnis, Ramirez, and Lindor, the Indians will have three MLB-caliber middle infielders, each of whom needs to play every day somewhere. If Jason Kipnis doesn’t show something during the first few months of the season he could be the one on the outside looking in.
This would have seemed unfathomable as recently as eleven months ago, but the situation has changed. In Jose Ramirez, the Indians have a potential second baseman who by all accounts is much better with the leather than Kipnis. While Kipnis is an excellent base runner, hitting is his calling card. If he can’t get back to at least his 2012 numbers at the plate (.257/.335/.379) then all of a sudden he’s no longer an obviously better player than Ramirez. Kipnis’ salary will only continue to climb due to the extension he signed last April, and if he doesn’t start hitting sooner than later, we may be talking about Cleveland Indians right fielder Jason Kipnis, or even Los Angeles Angels (or whatever other team) second baseman Jason Kipnis.
This situation is still a long way off however. It’s almost a moot point to dissect Kipnis’ peripheral numbers in too much depth; he was bad in 2014 any way you slice it. Sure, some better luck on balls in play (.288 in 2014, .308 career) and in home run to fly ball rate (4.8% in 2014, 10.0% career) will help. Kipnis also cut down on his strikeout rate by almost four percentage points from 2013, which in theory would help him post a higher batting average in 2015 if he can maintain that progress.
But ultimately better luck won’t do it alone. Bad numbers are always accompanied by seemingly unlucky peripherals. Anyone watching could see Kipnis was just not hitting the ball with the power and authority he had in the past. A lot of that may be due to the oblique injury, but it’s not a given that he’ll start hitting the ball harder, and he has to show there’s no ill-effects from a December finger injury.
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However, if Kipnis can just put up offensive numbers somewhere between his 2012 and 2013 seasons while playing decent defense, he’s a three and a half to four win player, well worth his contract. Considering that the Indians are rarely major players in free agency, plus the fact that free agent is generally an inefficient way to acquire players, the contract still has a chance to bring the type of value the Indians thought they were getting when they signed it last April. The Indians have to put their money somewhere, and investing it in Jason Kipnis can still bear fruit for the club.
But after a down 2014 season, there are no guarantees for Jason Kipnis in 2015, and that now extends all the way to his job as the everyday second baseman in Cleveland. The tools are still there for Kipnis to bounce back, and hopefully the health will be there too. There are still many reasons to believe Jason Kipnis can still be an all-star caliber second baseman.
But baseball can be a cruel mistress. Just ask Jason Kipnis.