As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who is likely to be on the Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we turn our attention to the Tribe’s presumed starting second baseman: Jason Kipnis.
Background: Kipnis, 25 in April, was the Indians’ second-round pick (No. 63 overall) in the 2009 MLB amateur draft out of Arizona State University—a school with a pretty good track record of baseball players. He wasn’t considered on par with teammate Lonnie Chisenhall in terms of pedigree but he still intrigued scouts with his potential—Baseball America ranked him No. 54 on their top prospects list a year ago.
Last year: After hitting Triple-A pitching (.280/.362/.484 in 400 plate appearances) just as well as he has every other level of pitching that he’s faced, Kipnis earned a promotion to the parent club in July. He hit .272 with 7 home runs, 19 RBI, 24 runs scored, 5 stolen bases and an .841 OPS in 36 games with the Tribe, interrupted by a strained hamstring in August. Of particular note was Kipnis’ power: he slugged .507 with a .235 ISO and an .865 Power Factor.
Key factor: The biggest question mark with Kipnis is his defense. A converted outfielder, he’s still a work in progress at second base and he’ll probably never be an above-average fielder. The question is: Just how bad is his glove? To me, Kipnis didn’t look like a complete butcher in the field last year. But some stats disagree: he made six errors in 36 games and his -23.3 UZR/150 is downright frightening. Sabermetric fielding stats require more than a year to stabilize so we shouldn’t draw any firm conclusions from less than a quarter-season sample, but seeing such an extreme value definitely raises some questions.
Beyond that, there’s the ever-present question for young players of whether he can continue at the pace he showed in 2011. He’s certainly capable of being an offensive force, but it remains to be seen if he can keep it up over a full season—especially as opposing pitchers start to figure him out.
The experts all agree that Kipnis is due for some regression—the question is how much. Bill James and RotoChamp both see him as a solid hitter poised for a 15/15 season, while Steamer and ZIPS project him to be a roughly league-average hitter whose value is derived primarily from playing second base. Personally, I think the mean projection is excessively skeptical.
Best-case scenario: Kipnis picks up right where he left off last year. He makes a run at hitting 30 home runs and stealing 20 bases. His walk rate picks up a little as he gets more exposure to major league pitching, and his OPS rises towards .900. His defense is subpar but not abysmal. He is rewarded with a promotion in the batting order and takes his place among the game’s best middle infielders.
Worst-case scenario: Kipnis gets a bad case of the sophomore slump. His power and plate discipline numbers decline as opposing pitchers figure out his weaknesses and the toil of a full MLB season starts to wear him down by midsummer. He starts to press and loses some playing time, which make matters even worse. On defense, he and Asdrubal Cabrera comprise the worst double-play combo in the league. People start calling Cord Phelps Cleveland’s second baseman of the future.
Most likely scenario: I’m quite bullish on Kipnis, and with the possible exception of James’ I’d take the over on each of the aforementioned expert projections. It’s unrealistic to expect him to repeat his 135 wRC+ in 2012 (though it’s certainly possible that he will), but I’d bet on Kipnis going 15/15 (if not 20/20) and OPSing over .800 again. You could do a lot worse than that second base.