Kipnis Off to Strong Start, Showing Good Health in Arizona

Just when Cleveland Indians fans may have been getting ready to write off Jason Kipnis, the Tribe second baseman may be showing that he could be primed for a big return this season.

As spring training games were about to get underway a little more than a week ago, news came out that Kipnis was dealing with a minor injury to his back. While the key word was minor, it put some worry into the minds of the Wahoo Warrior faithful who watched the two-time All-Star slog his way through an injury-plagued 2017 campaign.

Now on the wrong side of 30, it would seem harder for Kipnis to bounce back from injuries than when he was in his 20s.

In 2014, Kipnis suffered an oblique injury. He managed to play in 129 games, but was not the strong presence in the batting order that Tribe fans had come to know and love. He hit just .240 with six home runs and 41 RBI. He played through pain and could never really get right at the plate with the lingering injury.

That season, he was 27. He bounced back to be an All-Star for the second time in 2015 and then was a major part of Cleveland’s 2016 club that got to Game 7 of the World Series. He had a strong postseason, even while dealing with a sprained ankle, and more big things were expected of him 2017.

Unfortunately for Kip and the team, his age-30 campaign last season was a major disappointment. It began during the Cactus League season when he had a bad rotator cuff followed by a shoulder injury. He started the 2017 season on the disabled list and did not play until mid-April. Having lost out on spring training, a shorter minor league rehab stint did not have Kipnis truly ready when he did return. The going was rough for the veteran second baseman for about a month.

He was hitting just .155 with no home runs and six RBI after a May 13 loss to the Twins. That was 18 full games into his return from the DL. He finally started hitting after that. The rest of May saw the Kipnis of old as he got his batting average up to .229 by month’s end and hit six bombs with 13 RBI over the next 16 contests. That was really the highlight of his year, that tenth of a season’s worth of games.

In June, he hit .244 with two jacks and five RBI – hardly Kipnis-like numbers over a full month. The first eight games of July were off to an even less impressive start, as Kipnis was hitting .208 for the month when he started having hamstring issues. He missed almost of a month of action before returning to play in 13 of 16 games, only to go down again with a hamstring injury. It was his third stay on the DL for the season.

When he came back in late September, in time for the stretch run and postseason, he found his normal second base job taken up by Jose Ramirez. With a void in the outfield due to injuries, the Indians moved the former college outfielder to center for the end of the season and their short-lived, five-game playoff appearance.

In what can only be termed an odd and mostly forgettable year for Kipnis, the 30-year-old (who will be 31 on April 3) hit .232 with 12 homers, 35 RBI, and six stolen bases in 90 games. He was far removed from looking like an All-Star.

Throughout the offseason, he was the subject of trade rumors. However, there was not a fit. Reports say that the Indians neared a deal to send him to the Mets, but the return in that trade is unknown. It would have been hard for any team to justify giving much up for a guy in his early 30s, coming of an injury-riddled season, and guaranteed $13.6 million this year and $14.6 million in 2019. Without any trade partners, the Indians chose to go into spring training with the idea that Kip would go back to his regular second base position while Ramirez would return to third, where he was playing when voted an All-Star last year.

Not being able to deal Kipnis may turn out to be a win for the Tribe. While Kipnis’ back injury to open camp may have worried Tribe fans and surely frustrated the player, he came out of the gates roaring when he finally got to take swings in a Cactus League game. He hit three home runs in his first two games. He hit two alone on Wednesday. While it is hard to really read a lot into spring training stats, it is truly a positive sign to see Kipnis driving the ball. If he were still dealing with a balky back or an ailing shoulder, he would not be mashing the ball against the worst of pitchers.

Through four spring training games coming into the weekend, Kipnis was actually at four total homers and eight RBI. He has seven hits in 11 at bats, good for a .636 batting average.

The hot start to his spring should be easing any concerns that the team and fans have about whether or not Kipnis is healthy. He sure seems to be so far. A return to health and All-Star form for Kipnis would be a big boost to the team. The offense lost Carlos Santana and Jay Bruce. Yonder Alonso, who hit 28 homers last year, replaced Santana. However, he does not have Santana’s track record and fears linger he was a one-hit wonder in a break-out season. A healthy Kipnis to go with Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, and Edwin Encarnacion would help to keep the Tribe lineup flowing as well as it has the last two seasons when club won the A.L. Central Divison title.

If Kipnis can get back to being a .275 hitter who can hit 20 bombs and drive in 80 or more, then fears of a regression in Cleveland’s run production could be calmed. Kipnis may be a big key toward helping the Indians win a third straight division title and contend again for their first World Series title in 70 years.

Photo: Mike Stobe/Getty Images

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