Make no mistake about it, if Jason Kipnis never played another game for the Cleveland Indians, he would likely go down as one of the best second basemen in franchise history. Not only that, but given the run of success for the team during his seven years in Cleveland, it is likely that many fans would consider him among their all-time favorite players. I would include myself in this as well, with Kipnis and the recently departed Carlos Santana as my favorite Indians during this current iteration.

Unfortunately for Jason Kipnis, baseball can be a cruel mistress. Thanks to an injury plagued 2017 season, Kipnis experienced a significant decline in offensive production. Widely regarded as an above average offensive talent thanks to his combination of speed, power, and ability to get on base, his 2017 numbers were anything but in line with what we had come to expect.

Does Jason Kipnis Still Have A Home In Cleveland?

Jason Kipnis Stats
Jason Kipnis Stats

As you can see from the chart above, the drop-off in production was steep, especially when compared to Kipnis’ career year in 2016. While the 25 doubles, 12 home runs, and 43 runs scored were troubling, nothing was more alarming than Kipnis’ 2017 slash line of .232/.291/.414. His inability to draw walks and get on base represented a dramatic shift in approach at the plate. In the end, his results suffered.

Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your perspective, Kipnis’ poor 2017 performance was due primarily to injury. He began the 2017 campaign on the DL thanks to a strained rotator cuff and did not make his regular season debut until late-April. After a somewhat lackluster couple of months, Kipnis returned to the DL multiple times thanks to a strained hamstring. It was this injury that cost him the majority of the second half of the season and may very well have cost him his future with the Indians.

Kipnis’ injuries combined with the emergence of Jose Ramirez and several other players has created a log jam on the Indians roster. In 2017, the Indians excelled with a middle infield combo of Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez. Additionally, the defensive prowess of Giovanni Urshela and Erik Gonzalez at third base created a nearly impenetrable infield. And while Kipnis made a valiant effort to play center field in the playoffs, the future of that position belong solely to Bradley Zimmer. And don’t forget about Yandy Diaz, a player primed for an offensive breakout in 2018.

So where does this leave Jason Kipnis?

Prior to spring training, many people felt that Kipnis was a prime candidate to be used in a trade. As a mid-market team that skews more towards small market, acquiring talent via free agency is often difficult. That leaves the trade market as the one way to reliably make dramatic improvements to the roster. Given Kipnis’ age, he will turn 31 on April 3rd, and track record of reliable performance, the consensus of numerous Twitter GMs was that the Indians could get a player of significant value in return.

It didn’t happen. Instead, the Indians chose to be patient with the all-star second baseman, understanding that a healthy Jason Kipnis creates a far more dynamic offensive lineup. Based on returns so far this spring, it’s beginning to look like their patience may be rewarded.

Through 13 spring training games, Jason Kipnis is playing out of his mind. In 37 at-bats (small sample size alert) he’s slashing .486/.500/1.081 with 6 home runs, 12 RBI, and 10 runs scored. And while he has drawn only one walk, he is hitting the baseball with a renewed authority. All that’s left to do at this point is wrap him in bubble wrap and ship him to Seattle for Opening Day.

However, while early spring training returns have been promising, they mean little to anything in the end. Will Kipnis continue to hit at his current Babe Ruth type levels? No. Will he perform to the substandard level we saw in 2017? That’s also unlikely. The truth more than likely lies somewhere in between.

Jason Kipnis 2018 Projections
Jason Kipnis 2018 Projections

As you can see in the table above, projections for Jason Kipnis’ 2018 campaign don’t vary much. Most projections estimate Kipnis to generate power numbers similar to his 2017 output, mid to high teens. This adds to the collective thinking that Kipnis’ 2016 power output may have been more of an anomaly than the norm. Where most projections see improvement from Kipnis is in his slash line. All of the above mentioned projections systems see Kipnis returning to pre-2017 form with an average between .260 and .280 and an OBP around .330 to .340. This would be consistent with his 2012-2016 line and a welcomed return to form.

Ultimately, the most important part of Jason Kipnis’ 2018 season will be his ability to get on base and generate run scoring opportunities. While his 2016 power numbers were nice, that was borne out largely by circumstance. With the injuries and structure of the Indians 2016 lineup, Kipnis was forced into the 3-spot of the lineup where power is valued. To his credit, he delivered. However, Kipnis’ ideal role is in either the first or second spot in the lineup getting on base ahead of sluggers and RBI producers like Edwin Encarnacion, Yonder Alonso, and Michael Brantley, or in the bottom third  resetting the table for the top of the lineup. If Kipnis can fill that role in one of those areas of the lineup, he becomes more valuable than as an average middle of the order power hitter.

The one alarming detail not captured above is durability. Several of these projection systems estimated Kipnis to play in somewhere around 120- 140 games. Certainly some of these absences will be due to regular rest, something Terry Francona has made a habit of doing with his best players. However, it’s a bit alarming that many projections estimate Kipnis will miss at least some time due to at least one DL stint. How else can you possibly explain 30-40 missing games? Let’s just hope that’s one projection that proves to be incorrect.

In the end, Jason Kipnis will be at the center of the Indians’ season regardless of how things play out. Barring another injury riddled campaign, he will either be at the heart of the success, or possibly the center piece of their restocking efforts come the trade deadline. While the Indians have decided to roll with him to start the year, I don’t believe it is outside the realm of possibility he could be used to acquire and additional arm in July. This is especially true should younger players like Yandy Diaz and Urshela exceed expectations in regards to performance. Don’t be surprised if Kipnis is moved because he becomes expendable.

But until that time comes, enjoy him while you can. Jason Kipnis has been the heart of this team for a long time and the backbone of their most recent successes. At the age of 31, there is plenty left in the tank. It’s just a matter of whether or not his body is willing. If it is, 2018 could be the return of the “Dirtbag” we have all come to know and love.