Join Did The Tribe Win Last Night as we count down to Opening Day!
Countdown to Opening Day – 22
Each year, teams head to their respective homes in Arizona and Florida with several goals in mind, including making sure all players are adequately prepared for the season, resolving all position battles before breaking camp, and ensuring as few players as possible suffer lingering or season-ending injuries.
The latter has become an issue for the Cleveland Indians due to the status of second baseman Jason Kipnis.
A month ago, the Indians began arriving at their spring home in Goodyear, Arizona, already with uncertainty about the status of one-time All-Star left fielder Michael Brantley. Now, Kipnis and his on-going issues with his right shoulder are posing another complication to manager Terry Francona’s roster construction for his American League championship defense.
While there were some hopes that things were improving with Kipnis as he appeared in back-to-back games this week in his spring debut, there was still one looming concern holding him back.
He’s not comfortable when throwing.
Kipnis appeared in games on Friday and Saturday while working out of the designated hitter spot in the lineup and was expected to be in the lineup again on Sunday, but the training staff has shut him down for the next two weeks. His strained right rotator cuff issues are not causing him any complications or significant pain when swinging a bat, but as for throwing – that has been the far greater concern. Now, it is becoming more and more likely that the Indians’ two-time All-Star second sacker will begin the season on the 10-day disabled list or, at the very least, will not be in the lineup on Opening Day when the club starts the season on April 3 in Texas against the Rangers.
“He could certainly DH today,” said Francona on Sunday prior to the team’s game against the San Diego Padres. “He could actually go play second, but because there are times when he’s still feeling this thing [shoulder], the medical people and Kipnis have met and the determination was that we’re going to keep him down for a couple of weeks.
“We had a pretty lengthy conversation because he is getting better. Nothing has gone haywire, nothing has gone wrong. But it’s such a long season. By taking this approach, we want to make sure they knock it out and not get it at 90 or 85 percent. That’s why we’re doing this.”
Kipnis was 2-for-5 with a pair of singles, two strikeouts, and a walk in his limited spring action.
The likelihood that Kipnis will not open the year with the club opens the door for several utility guys vying for roster spots to make the club, including veteran Michael Martinez, Erik Gonzalez, minor leaguer Ronny Rodriguez, or even minor league camp invitee Daniel Robertson. Gonzalez, Martinez, and Rodriguez each started a pair of games at second base in the last week, while Robertson made a start at second base on Saturday afternoon.
As is the case with his teammate Brantley, it is far more important to the Indians’ season to get Kipnis healed up and ready to go for the majority of the season than to trot him out onto the field for Opening Day, so while the injury and the conservative approach are frustrating, the cautious route with him is the best road to travel.
As for his last sample size of work, Kipnis was not an All-Star in 2016, but that should take nothing away from a power-packed season provided by the veteran second baseman and clubhouse leader at a position of strength in the American League (see: Jose Altuve, Robinson Cano, Ian Kinsler, Dustin Pedroia, etc.).
Hitting second in the lineup ahead of the high average hitter Francisco Lindor and power hitters Mike Napoli and Carlos Santana and behind Santana and Rajai Davis in the leadoff spot, Kipnis did plenty to set and clear the table all season long. While his batting average and on-base percentage were both near his career averages coming into the year, Kipnis busted out the boom, setting a new career-high in homers with 23 while coming just two RBI short of matching his previous best set back in his first All-Star season in 2013.
Kipnis’ value in the Indians lineup has long been evident and his versatility to hit in multiple spots in the batting order comfortably gives Francona some different options when considering his one through nine for the regular season, once he has returned from injury at least.
Last season, the 29-year-old played almost exclusively from the second spot in the lineup, making all but ten appearances from that spot in the batting order. It was a notable change for Kipnis, who had slotted into the Indians’ leadoff spot the season before and hit .311 from the top of the order while making 562 of his 641 total plate appearances there.
Unlike many players in the game, his splits did not suffer in the matchup department. He slashed .272/.351/.471 against right-handers last season with 24 doubles, 16 homers, and 52 RBI. He had a .282/.326/.464 slash against left-handers in roughly half as many at bats, with 17 doubles and seven homers to go with 30 RBI.
He was consistent throughout the season for the club, hitting .276 in the first half and .275 in the second. He cooled some down the stretch, hitting .233 while drawing a season-high 14 walks and lacing 12 doubles in the final month-plus of the regular season. He fared extremely well in July, when he hit .344 with a .396 OBP and .625 slugging with nine doubles, a season-high six homers, and 13 RBI for the month.
His impact was visible in his production in wins versus losses. He had a slash line of .323/.398/.570 in the 90 games he appeared in in which the Indians were victorious with 17 of his homers and 62 of his RBI, but had a triple slash of .209/.261/.327 with six homers and 20 RBI in the 66 losses that he participated in.
Kipnis has been good for 141 games of action or more in four of the last five seasons, but injuries have popped up throughout his professional career. He missed time during his rookie season in 2011 when, three and a half weeks into his debut effort, he landed on the 15-day disabled list with a right hamstring strain. He missed nearly all of May in 2014 with a strained right oblique that hampered his production all season long. The site of his current injury was an issue in August of 2015, when inflammation in the shoulder cost him 15 days on the DL. He also played through a gross looking grade 2 ankle sprain during the World Series last year (you can search Twitter for a picture of that one if you’re that interested).
He was out of action just five times while appearing in a career-high 156 games for the Tribe in 2016. He hit .275 with a .343 OBP and .469 slugging, 41 doubles, four triples, 23 homers, and 82 RBI, all while stealing 15 of 18 bases.
With the kind of production that Kipnis can bring to the lineup, the Indians should continue their slow and cautious progression with their fan favorite second baseman until he is ready to go full tilt. They will need him over the course of the marathon that is the Major League Baseball season.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images