Since his call-up to the majors in 2011, Jason Kipnis has been a fixture in the Cleveland Indians’ lineup, hitting .268/.340/.422 lifetime while playing mostly second base for the Tribe. He’s been worth 19.7 fWAR across 3,737 plate appearances, helping to lead the club to postseason berths in 2013, 2016 and 2017.
But shoulder and hamstring injuries in 2017 limited Kipnis to 373 plate appearances, and were probably at least partially responsible for his putrid .232/.291/.414 batting line en route to a career-low-tying 82 wRC+. Breakout infielder Jose Ramirez took over at the keystone for Kipnis during his recovery from the hamstring injury, and appears to have displaced him at the position.
After an injury to defensive wizard center fielder Bradley Zimmer, Kipnis took over the position upon his return, manning center throughout the latter half of September and the playoffs. However, he posted supbar defense during that time, so Zimmer is most likely slated to reclaim his spot in the outfield in 2018. This would leave Kipnis without an official position in the Tribe’s defensive alignment.
The Indians could move Kipnis back to second base once again and simply shift Ramirez back to third, where he’s a Gold Glove finalist anyway. But Cleveland might not be done giving Yandy Diaz a look at third. They’ve also been giving top prospect Francisco Mejia reps at the hot corner in the Arizona Fall League. The club could very well decide against blocking all that young upside at third base just to return Kipnis to his natural position.
Kipnis could be utilized in a corner outfield position. Assuming his bat bounces back, it would profile fine in left or right, and it’s easy to imagine him playing passable defense at one of the corners. Unfortunately, the Indians already have a glut of left-handed-hitting corner outfielder options that includes Lonnie Chisenhall, Tyler Naquin, and Michael Brantley, not to mention switch-hitters Greg Allen and Abraham Almonte. To make matters even more complicated, the organization is apparently exploring the possibility of a reunion with lefty Jay Bruce, who became a fan favorite after being traded to the team in August.
If the club declines Brantley’s option and opts not to re-sign Bruce, there would be a bit more space for Kipnis in the outfield. He’d probably be one of their top offensive options out there in that scenario. But if one or both of Brantley and Bruce are brought back in 2018, Kipnis might not fit well into the corner outfield picture.
So with a crowded infield and an outfield that is already lefty-heavy, the Indians might not have a clearly defined role for Kipnis. The former second-round pick is set to make $13.5 million this year via the terms of a contract extension he signed in 2014. That might be more than the Indians are interested in paying for a part-time player. There’s a possibility they could end up exploring trade scenarios. Of course, dealing Kipnis coming off one of the worst offensive seasons of his career would be selling low; the club might not have interest in doing that.
Kip’s newfound positional flexibility could have value to a club that expects to contend in 2018. It’s no secret that Tribe skipper Terry Francona likes having players that can move about the diamond. He could get plenty of at-bats between second base, the outfield and designated hitter. But it’s not a given that Kipnis will rebound offensively, either, and that could leave him without a clearly-defined role on the team in 2018 and beyond.
What do you think? Will the Indians play Kipnis in the infield, move him permanently to the outfield, utilize him in a part-time role or trade him this offseason? (Link for app users.)