Kipnis Loooking to Build Off Solid 2012 Season
During Spring Training the DTTWLN staff will profile and examine the coaches and players that make up and are vying to be part of the 2013 Cleveland Indians—A Team With A New Direction. Today, we examine one of the players that will need to take their game to the next level if the Indians plan to contend in the American League Central Division this season.
By Craig Gifford
The Indians took major strides toward improving their offense during the winter with acquisitions of Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, Mark Reynolds and Drew Stubbs. However, if Cleveland’s offense is to truly take off this season it will need the continued development and improvement of key players from the 2012 lineup.
One of the most notable of those players is second baseman Jason Kipnis. Last year, his first full one in the majors, Kipnis looked like a seasoned veteran to start the season. He was nearly named to the American League All-Star team as his batting average hovered in the mid-.280s much of first three months. The second half of the year saw Kipnis trail off, batting just .233 post-Mid Summer Classic.
In all likelihood, the second half struggles were probably the result of a player taking the field much more often than he ever had in the past. The stress and rigors of a full Major League season often take a toll on first-year players. As it is, the overall numbers for Kipnis in 2012 were good for a young player; 14 home runs, 76 RBI and .257 batting average were a nice starting point. Throw in that he stole 31 bases and scored 86 runs and Kipnis proved to be a strong presence at the plate and on the base paths.
Now, Kipnis has a full season under his belt. He is in spring training knowing his place on the team is secure. No longer is he battling for or worried about earning a spot on Cleveland’s regular season roster. Kipnis will be in the Opening Day lineup, playing second and likely batting third. The year of experience and ability to prepare for a season, stress-free, can only help.
The lone worry at the moment is a right elbow that he is currently suffering from a nagging pain. Kipnis got hurt this past week playing long toss. He has missed the past four games. However, he and manager Terry Francona have both said he should play in today’s game and the elbow soreness is nothing more than a minor injury.
“I don’t think it’s anything that’s going to linger on for too much longer,” Kipnis told Jordan Bastian of MLB.com. “I don’t think it’s that serious at all. We just have the luxury to rest right now, so we’ll take advantage of it. During the season, I’d be in there still all the time, and I wouldn’t have a problem with it.”
With that worry alleviated, the expectation is Kipnis will continue to take another step forward in 2013. Every level Kipnis has played at, he has had success. Offensively, Kipnis has the potential to hit at an elite level.
That said, this spring, besides the elbow soreness, has been a challenge for Kipnis. He is hitting only .154 with one home run and three RBI in 15 games, covering 39 at bats. Part of the struggles could have to do with the elbow problem. It could also stem from tinkering with his batting stance and swing. Whatever, the case Kipnis said he does not put much stock into spring numbers.
“I’m not really concerned about the average in Spring Training,” Kipnis told Bastian. “I still have my confidence. Right now, we’re just still working on things and we’re trying to get our timing down and still have good at-bats. I think I’m starting to have better at-bats and swing at the right pitches.”
Along with just natural growth, Kipnis should also be aided by the additions made to the lineup in the offseason. No longer will Kipnis be asked to help carry the batting order as one of its few bright spots. In 2012 if Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera, Michael Brantley and Carlos Santana were mired in a slump, the team was probably not going to score many runs. Those four represented the only sourcse of power and consistent hitting for the Indians. In adding Bourn, Swisher, Reynolds and Stubbs, as well as gaining a fully-healthy Lonnie Chisenhall, the Tribe now has a much deeper lineup. Kipnis thinks that will be a huge benefit in helping he and the other mainstays improve.
“It does take a little pressure off (with) the guys we have in the lineup this year, one through nine,” Kipnis said on Spring Training Daily on STO. “We have a lot more ways to create runs. We’ve got speed, we’ve got power, we’ve got higher average guys. We have lefties and righties, a good mix. There will be a little more depth.
“It’s not that if we’re down we’re gonna need a home run by one of our first five guys in the order,” Kipnis continued. “We’ve got guys who can run and score runs at the end.”
With the much more balanced lineup, Kipnis claims he has no worries about where he hits in the order. However, the prevailing thought is he will likely bat third. He would bat between Cabrera and Swisher. With that kind of protection around him, Kipnis should see good pitches.
Not only should the offense improve for the second baseman, but Kipnis’ work in the field is also not a finished product. When the Indians drafted Kipnis in the second round of the 2009 draft, he was an outfielder. In 2010 the Tribe converted him to second base because of an organizational need and because the team felt Kipnis was athletic enough to make the move. In the past few years, the Indians have seen Kipnis become an adequate second baseman. In 146 games in 2012, Kipnis committed just six errors for a .991 fielding percentage. That was a dramatic improvement from his six errors in 36 games as a rookie in 2011.
“It was a process,” Kipnis said of learning to play second. “What you didn’t see is behind the scenes, the hundreds and hundreds of ground balls I take throughout the week, each day. A lot of coaches have helped me a bunch. It didn’t come easy. It didn’t come without its bruises. It took a whole lot to get where I am, but you never want to be satisfied. We still have a ways to go, but we’re getting there.”
Offensively and defensively, Kipnis hopes to and should take another leap forward in 2013. A team with hopes to compete for the postseason needs that from Kipnis. In fact, the improved team outlook from last year’s 69-win club to this year’s with a new manager and new players has put a spring in everyone’s step. It’s an intangible that can help any player, not just Kipnis.
“It’s still early, but guys are practicing more with a purpose,” Kipnis said. “We know what kind of potential this lineup can have and what kind of potential this team can have and how far we can go. So we don’t want to cheat ourselves by not taking it seriously in practice. Right now, these guys are practicing with a good energy.”
If it’s true what they say about practice making perfect, that should benefit the entire roster. Kipnis is hard at work to improve on last season’s successful first-year campaign. If he continues to grow, the Indians will only be all the better for it.
Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer