A run to the World Series like the Indians had in 2016 will often raise the bar for a lot of the players on the roster. It will also transform a younger, inexperienced, untested squad into one that is a little older, a little wiser, and knows how to handle big games and big moments.
A season like 2016 will also go a long way toward creating strong leadership in a clubhouse. That was something the Tribe really did not seem to have much of before this past campaign. Now it may be there in abundance.
Due to a general lack of postseason play, most of the core players on the Cleveland roster had no more than just the 2013 Wild Card game to call on as playoff experience. The Indians front office needed to bring in veterans from the outside to teach and show the younger guys how handle a pennant race and playoff games.
In 2015, after the Tribe traded away the albatross contracts of failed free agent signings Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, manager Terry Francona dubbed Yan Gomes, Corey Kluber and Jason Kipnis as his team leaders. They are all on long-term contracts and figure to be around a while. However, when it came to showing the ropes of succeeding under pressure, none had really been in that position.
This past summer, though, something changed. The Indians signed first baseman/designated hitter Mike Napoli to a team-friendly contract after he’d had a couple of off seasons. Sure, he was big for his 34 home runs and 101 RBI, but he was just as important as a guy who had been to the postseason seven prior times. He knew what it took to get to October baseball and have success once there. He was also quite vocal and became something of the voice in the Tribe clubhouse.
Now, at the age of 35 and wanting a multi-year contract, chances are Napoli could be one and done with Cleveland. Some think he had a career year and his fall off at the plate in September and October was an indication that he may not be the terror he was in the middle of the lineup in future seasons.
It is very likely that the Indians could replace his production. There are big-bopping first base options on the free agent market. However, can they replace his leadership?
That answer gets a resounding yes in the form of Kipnis. The second baseman has always had talent. Seeming to take a lesson or two from Napoli, he seemed to also find his voice last year. Kipnis was not afraid to talk to the media and be honest, sometimes brutally, on a number of topics. During postseason celebrations, when cameras went into the locker rooms, it was Kipnis at the center of almost everything.
Kip really is the perfect guy to be that team leader or captain of the Tribe. He is now a veteran, as he will be entering his seventh season, the sixth full one, with the Indians. He is a two-time All-Star (in 2013 and 2015) and is all-around one of the best players on the team.
The 29-year-old turns 30 on April 3, the 2017 season opener in Arlington, Texas. He may not have the overall talent of a Francisco Lindor, nor does he own the prestigious trophies like Andrew Miller and Kluber. However, he plays with a grit and overall game of a guy that a team should want leading the way.
This past season, despite not be an All-Star, Kipnis enjoyed one of his finer overall campaigns. He hit a career-high 23 homers, was only two off his careers bests in RBI and doubles with 82 and 41, respectively, and hit a solid .275. He added 15 stolen bases, remaining a threat when he gets on base.
The 2016 season was also one of Kip’s more consistent years. He was good to very good in every month other than September, when he slumped to a .221 batting average for the regular season’s final full month.
He picked it back in October as he was a strong force in the Tribe lineup in the ALDS and World Series. He played a big part in helping the Tribe take down Boston in three straight games to start the postseason, hitting .364 with a home run and three RBI. After a rough go in the ALCS, getting just one hit in 19 at bats, Kipnis regained his form at the plate in the World Series against his hometown Cubs. On baseball’s grandest stage, he proved the lights were not too bright, hitting .290 with two home runs and four RBI. He was right there with Kluber and Miller as key reasons the Tribe nearly ended its 68-year championship drought. He certainly added big-game ability to his already strong resume this past October.
The good news for Indians fans is Kipnis is locked up with the Tribe for four more seasons. Cleveland has a team option in 2020 worth $16.5 million. That is steep, but it seems Kipnis will be worth every penny. He has made the transition from second round draft pick with potential, to young All-Star, to where he is now as a trusted, experienced veteran on the ball club.
Cleveland’s second baseman actually is something like Napoli, only without the 30-homer season that the elder has had. Kipnis consistently plays hard and puts up strong numbers, year in and year out. Now he even seems to have the voice and clubhouse presence that Nap possesses.
If Napoli finds himself a new home in 2017, the Indians can look at players outside the organization like Edwin Encarnacion, Mark Trumbo, Pedro Alvarez or Chris Carter to replace the power in the middle of the lineup. The Indians need only look within to find their dominant, veteran leader. Kipnis slipped into that role last season and seems perfectly suited for it.
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