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Jason Kipnis being healthy and productive could win the AL Central

A return to form for Kipnis could be a bigger boost than almost any free agent could have provided.

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What would you rather have for 2015: The 2013 version of Jason Kipnis and the current starting rotation, or the 2014 version of Jason Kipnis, the current starting rotation, and James Shields at no cost? Shields at no cost, that'd be an awfully big addition to the team... but for me the first option is much more appealing, because getting back the Jason Kipnis who was one of the three best-hitting second basemen in baseball would be an even bigger addition.

Kipnis was worth ~4 fewer wins last season than he was the year before. Four extra wins in 2014 would have put the Indians in the Wild Card Game again, and if one of those four extra wins had come at Detroit's expense, it would have been enough for the Indians to have been AL Central champions. Given that the division seems more closely bunched together than it has been heading into any recent spring training, it certainly seems plausible that four wins could again be the difference between putting a new banner up at Progressive Field or going fishing.

Kipnis suffered a strained oblique in late April last season. He missed 26 games while recovering, but there were reports of it still bothering him throughout the rest of the season. He was also hampered in September by a sore hamstring. How much those injuries are to blame for his diminished production is hard to know, but there was a pretty dramatic difference in his numbers.:

In the few weeks before the oblique injury, Kipnis had posted a batting line of .234/.354/.394, good for a wRC+ of 120. A low BABIP of just .250 hampered his batting average, but his early walk and strikeout rates were good, and he'd hit 3 home runs already.

From the time he returned through the end of the season his batting line was .241/.299/.315. His walk rate was half of what it had been before, his strikeout rate climbed, he hit only 3 more home runs (in ~4 times as many at bats as he'd needed to hit the 3 home runs prior to the injury).

If you take his pre-injury numbers and give him a .300 BABIP (instead of the .250 he had), you've got a very good batting line, very close to what he did in 2013 (with the extra production he put up that year coming in part because of his .345, probably a little too high to be sustainable).

I think a wRC+ of 120-125 in 2015 for Jason Kipnis is entirely possible, and if he does that, while continuing to run the bases well, he'll be a great option as leadoff hitter for the Indians (or #2 hitter, if Michael Bourn should happen to put things together well enough to merit leading off), helping to set the table for Michael Brantley, Carlos Santana, Yan Gomes, and Brandon Moss.

ZiPS only expects a 105 OPS+ though, while Steamer projects a wRC+ of 107. They each view him as a 2.5 to 3-win player, which would still be a nice improvement over last year (when he was worth ~1 win), but a far fry from 2013, when he was worth more like 5 wins. If offered the Steamer or ZiPS numbers for Kipnis, or given the opportunity to just see what happens, I'd let it ride and take my chances. I think Kipnis will rebound to something closer to his 2013, rather than just settling in squarely in the middle.

Here's to hoping I'm right...