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2013 Indians Player Preview: Jason Kipnis

As we count down the days until the start of the season, we’re profiling every player who will be on the Opening Day roster and how he could impact the team. Today, we’re kicking off this series with the Indians’ presumed 2013 second baseman: Jason Kipnis.

Background: Kipnis, 26 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 was generally considered the organization’s second-best position player prospect (behind Lonnie Chisenhall) before his promotion to the majors in July 2011.

Last year: It was a tale of two seasons for Kipnis, who was probably the Indians’ first-half MVP but slumped hard after his hot start. All told he hit .257/.335/.379 (making roughly a league-average hitter according to wRC+) with 14 home runs, 86 runs scored, 76 RBI, and 31 stolen bases in his first full MLB season. Though his power was significantly diminished from his rookie stint in 2011 (his slugging percentage fell more than 100 points from .507), his improved plate discipline (10 percent walk rate) and contact ability (16 percent strikeout rate) helped to offset the drop in his pop. He also appeared right at home on the basepaths and showed improved glovework as the season went on.

Despite his late-season swoon Baseball-Reference put him at 3.7 wins above replacement, tied with Carlos Santana for the team lead; FanGraphs also saw him as one of Cleveland’s best players with 3.1 WAR. However, Baseball Prospectus took a far more negative view and pegged his value at just 0.9 WARP.

Key factor: Power. Dreamed though we might have it was unreasonable to expect Kipnis to slug over .500 again in 2012, but no one expected regression this drastic. With his plate discipline and speed he doesn’t need much pop to be an above-average middle infielder, but there’s an enormous difference between a solid guy to keep towards the bottom of the order and the kind of core player you build a team around—as Kipnis could be if he regains some power.

2013 projections: Courtesy of FanGraphs. (*—estimated with the Simple WAR Calculator)

The ever-optimistic James aside, the consensus here is pretty clear: Kipnis has room to (and will) grow in his second full season, but the improvement will be limited to the power department.

Best-case scenario: Look at his 2011 line: .272/.333/.507. Now bump the average and on-base percentage up as he trades some strikeouts for walks  (like he did in 2012) and you’re in business. He joins the 20/20 club without breaking a sweat and makes a legitimate run at 25/25 or 30/30, all the while continuing to improve the field. As a top-of-the-order feature for the American League’s biggest surprise team he’s a shoo-in for the All-Star Game and gets his share of MVP votes.

Worst-case scenario: Kipnis’ second-half struggles were the new norm. He continues to show patience at the plate, but at the expense of swinging the bat hard. His fielding regresses and he struggles to post a .700 OPS. He loses his everyday job and we start seeing a lot of Mike Aviles and Ryan Raburn.

What to expect: Kipnis is a former top prospect in his mid-20’s who is at worst a league-average middle infielder and is blessed with a ton of talent. I see no reason why he won’t meet—or beat—Bill James‘ optimistic projections.

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