Kipnis Emerging as Leader and Star of Tribe
Mike Brandyberry | On 27, Mar 2014
The Cleveland Indians open the 2014 season with new expectations despite many questions. The Indians’ 25-man roster will look different than the group that won 92 games and lost the American League Wild Card game to the Tampa Bay Rays. While the roster may change and the expectations grow, Cleveland will need answer many questions this spring before opening the season in Oakland on March 31. Today, we look at one of the Indians’ players who is a core member of the team and key to contention this season and beyond.
Nearly every member of the Indians team, coaching staff and front office organization talks about how the club doesn’t have a star. Instead, the group thrives as a unit as it grows and becomes a contender in the American League.
The Indians may not be able to tout the, “no-star status,” much longer as Jason Kipnis continues to grow into a core member and leader. The 2014 season could be his breakout to star level.
In 2013, Kipnis had his best season as a big leaguer, hitting .284, with 17 home runs and driving in 84 runs. After starting the season slowly, Kipnis got red-hot in June, hitting .412 and slugging his way to his first American League All-Star appearance. He was a snub the season before in 2012. The new atmosphere and roster in 2013, helped both Kipnis and the team grow in their development.
“When you brought in all those new guys last year and you saw the chemistry that happened and how we gelled together, we’re just one more year down the road,” Kipnis said.
“This year we know the guys in the locker room and we know we can win with the guys in the locker room, so everyone is optimistic.”
This season, the expectations for the Indians and Kipnis are higher than ever before during his career. The Indians may not be the favorites in the American League Central Division, but the turnover in Detroit makes the division as wide open as it has been in several seasons. Kipnis, meanwhile, moved from the team’s #2 hitter, down to #3 in the lineup a year ago and will now be expected to be a major run producer.
Each year of Kipnis’ career has seen improvement and growth. Kipnis enters 2014 at 27-years old, the season position players are supposed to hit their peak years of success. If that trend continues in 2014, he has potential to hit .300, or hit 20 home runs. Add that to his improving on-base percentage each season and his back-to-back 30 stolen base seasons and Kipnis could emerge as a star, not just on the Indians, but in the American League.
Kipnis’ ability to assert himself into star status at second base, along with Dustin Pedroia and Robinson Cano, will help assert the Indians into a top tier of contention. Kipnis has added 12-15 lbs. this offseason in an attempt to strengthen his body for the long season ahead. After playing 149 games last season, and 152 in 2012, he understands the importance of consistency for himself and the team throughout the entire schedule. Consistency in himself and the team can only lead to higher levels of accomplishment.
“You learn September can be a lot of fun,” Kipnis said. “Winning is a lot more fun than losing. You hear the cliché, ‘the season is long,’ and you hear it more during the middle of the season, but it really goes to show how many ups and downs the season has. When you get there, you realize why people say that. You have to take care of your business in April and May and make it easier on yourself in September.”
The Indians’ organization has faith in Kipnis and his ability to become a true star. The organization has discussed a long-term contract with the second baseman the last two spring trainings. In 2013, Kipnis and his agents broke off talks on Opening Day. The same deadline has already been established for this spring. Kipnis and Justin Masterson have each discussed long-term extensions this spring. While Masterson has broken off talks with the team, Kipnis remains optimistic and positive.
“It just didn’t work out,” Kipnis said in regards to talks breaking off in 2013. “We put a deadline on it for the start of the season, so that’s the reason it stopped. Both sides were trying to get something done. We just didn’t come to the middle point, yet. We just kinda didn’t agree on years or numbers yet. Both of us are still trying to find the right numbers.”
“Its just something me and my agents thought would be a good idea,” Kipnis said of the Opening Day deadline. “Once the season starts to just concentrate on the season and playing, rather than have it be a distraction.”
Pedroia signed a six-year, $40.5 million deal after his second full season in 2008—a similar point to where Kipnis is in his career. Pedroia was just 25-years old at the time of the contract, however. It’s possible the yearly salary for a long-term extension for Kipnis could be comparable to Pedroia’s deal, but the hang up could be on the number of years. The Indians are normally hesitant to commit to lengthy contracts like six years. Likewise, a deal of that length would buy out all of Kipnis’ prime years of his career—something he may not want to give up without a chance at free agency.
Kipnis remains under team control for the next four seasons, however. He could opt for a deal like his teammate, Michael Brantley. Brantley signed a four-year extension with the Indians this spring to avoid all three years of salary arbitration, giving up a year of free agency.
If the Indians and Kipnis do not get a deal completed by Opening Day, the second baseman will again break off talks and turn his attention solely toward the field and getting the Indians back to the playoffs, this time for a sustained run. The bitterness of last season’s abrupt Wild Card defeat to the Tampa Bay Rays lingered throughout the off-season.
“It took a little bit to get over the loss,” Kipnis said. “I think everyone would say the same. We had such a strong run down the line and such a good season compared to years before and it all comes down to a nine inning game, nothing else to say than it sucked, it was cut too short.”
Kipnis and the Indians hope to put each other on the map in 2014, both individually and as a team. The Tribe’s growth to consistent contender may be tied closely to Kipnis’ development to star level. For each, it’s a big season, but the budding success from 2013 makes each hungry for more this year.
“It was awesome,” Kipnis said. “You hear you want to play meaningful games in September and that’s what we were doing. I can tell you from year’s past that it was a lot more fun to show up to the field when you’re still nervous about the game and have a lot on the line.”
Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer