Cleveland Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis came into the 2014 season as an American League All-Star and member of a core group of young, ascending talents poised to compete and thrive in the AL Central for years to come.
By the end of the first week of the season, the 27-year-old had earned a new contract, long-term security and faith from the organization that drafted him in the second round of the 2009 draft.
According to Paul Hoynes of Northeast Ohio Media Group, Kipnis has agreed to a six-year, $52.5 million extension through the 2019 season.
For the Indians, betting big on Kipnis is a necessary risk for a team with a unique core and bright future among AL competitors. Although Cleveland's second baseman isn't a transcendent talent like Bryce Harper in Washington or Manny Machado in Baltimore, he's very, very good.
Last season, only two players in baseball posted 30-plus steals and an OBP of .360 or better.
The first, Los Angeles' Mike Trout, recently signed a record-setting deal. The second, Kipnis, flew under the radar as a speedy on-base machine.
As Jordan Bastian of MLB.com pointed out, in 2013 Kipnis became only the sixth Indians player to post a 15-home-run, 30-steal season. The other five to accomplish the rare feat are Grady Sizemore, Roberto Alomar, Kenny Lofton, Joe Carter and Bobby Bonds.
In fact, Kipnis' 2012 and 2013 seasons—his seasons at ages 25 and 26—put him in rare company among second basemen in the history of baseball. According to Baseball-Reference (subscription required), Kipnis posted the 15th-best WAR (9.8) of all time among second basemen during that two-year age range.
On the surface, that's just a number. Many still can't draw meaningful conclusions from the advanced statistic.
Context, however, makes Kipnis stand out even more. When sorting by second basemen over the last 20 years (1994-2013), the Indians' $52.5 million man ranks fourth in WAR among his position mates at the same age.
|Highest WAR Among Age-25-26 Second Basemen (1994-2013)|
The names below him aren't just surprising; they paint a picture of great young second basemen that rose to Hall of Fame-level careers.
Of course, no long-term deal comes without risk. For the Indians, the risk here is that Kipnis becomes an approximation of players like Edgardo Alfonzo or Marcus Giles—good, not great, and with career-best seasons around the same age.
If that occurs, $52.5 million won't necessarily be a terrible investment for Cleveland, but it will be far from a steal.
Despite the stellar WAR and 2013 All-Star Game nod, Kipnis' game has flaws.
Last year, the left-handed hitter saw his strikeout percentage rise to 21.7. That led to 143 strikeouts, a large number for a hitter without a 20-plus-HR season on his ledger through parts of three big league seasons.
Due to a combination of strikeout percentage, attrition rate for second baseman and talent level, FanGraphs' Oliver Projection system doesn't expect Kipnis to take a leap from very good to great during the bulk of this deal.
In fact, Kipnis could be in natural decline by the time Cleveland's front office is forced to make a decision on his 2020 option year.
Can he continue to make a jump, become anything close to Chase Utley or Dustin Pedroia or help lead the Indians to World Series glory? In Cleveland, Kipnis—along with his core teammates at Progressive Field—could make the last scenario a reality.
When taken as a single transaction, the Kipnis deal makes sense for the mid-market Indians. Star second basemen with outstanding WAR figures can't land in Cleveland via a free-agency bidding war.
The only way for the team to hold on to Kipnis on the open market is to keep him off it altogether.
However, when surveying the Indians' roster and future contract allotments, there's more to the story than a second baseman deserving a lucrative new deal.
Under first-year manager Terry Francona, Cleveland made the postseason in 2013 for the first time since 2007. After losing starting pitchers Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir during the winter, it would be easy to project a decline in 2014 and beyond.
Instead, expect a rise. After Kipnis' deal becomes official, the Indians will have Carlos Santana, Michael Brantley, Yan Gomes and Kipnis all signed to team-friendly deals.
According to Hoynes, Mike Chernoff, Cleveland's assistant general manager, was bullish on what the long-term deals have accomplished.
“It’s extremely meaningful to have that group of guys here for the long term,” Chernoff said. “From a planning standpoint, knowing that we have these guys here, we can continue building.”
By the end of 2014, 20-year-old phenom shortstop Francisco Lindor could arrive, providing six seasons of team control before an eventual date with the open market. With only $42.4 million on the books for 2016, general manager Chris Antonetti and Chernoff can be aggressive if arbitration buyouts arise for young arms like Danny Salazar and Corey Kluber.
Mid-market teams must develop players and make calculated decisions on which to trade, move on from or re-sign to long-term deals. In Cleveland, the Kipnis deal is another example of the Indians choosing a core to compete with for years.
If their latest decision turns out to be prescient, a star-level offensive second baseman will be a major contributor on a perennial playoff contender.
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