There hasn't been a ton of great news coming out of Cleveland Indians camp the last few days. While it's very nice that Michael Brantley is progressing steadily and may actually play real baseball with major-leaguers soon, any excitement that birthed was quickly tamped down by the loss of Jason Kipnis.
The team confirmed that he'd be out for four to five weeks, meaning he's likely to be absent for at least half of April. This wasn't really a huge surprise, maybe week or so longer than some expected, but it still stinks. But maybe there's a silver lining in all this.
It sucks to lose an emotional leader on the field and an All-Star in the box score, but it's not as though he's being banished to a shadow realm. He'll still be around the team, for whatever that helps. If you listen closely, he’ll be the one booing. But the good news is, this is going to mean that Jose Ramirez will get reps at second.
Ramirez was an excellent third baseman last season once the Indians let Juan Uribe walk, hitting .312/.363/.462 and essentially replacing Michael Brantley's preseason projected output in the lineup. Assuming he does something like that again this year, he swiftly would become one of the best second basemen in baseball. He was better offensively than Kipnis was last year aside from home run numbers, logging a 122 wRC+ to Kip's 117. He's not going to keep the job once Kipnis is healthy, but it at least gives us a preview of what may be in the coming years.
As we know, the Indians are going to face significant change in the next couple years. Carlos Santana is on the final year of his contract, and the Indians will be unlikely to afford him once he hits the open market. Michael Brantley is recovering from a shoulder problem, and though he has a sure glove he’s not the rangiest of defenders. He's likely to find a home at DH/1B once Santana leaves, pairing with Edwin Encarnacion to be the power in the heart of the lineup.
That means left field is going to be open. I think eventually Kipnis is going to find his way there. As good a second baseman as he's turned himself into, it continues to look mechanical and wooden even as he makes plays. He’s solid if unspectacular, which isn’t quite enough on a team built around pitching. He played outfield as a younger man, and if the power continues to develop that could be his new home. Ramirez is simply more athletic and defensively versatile than Kipnis. He’s been an infielder by trade and seeing as his bat is good enough to stick (and possibly earn an All Star nod) at third, at second he’d grade out beautifully.
If Ramirez moves to second in the coming years and Kipnis to left, that frees up third base for one Yandy Diaz. Though I wrote a few days back that he might turn into a latter day Edgar Martinez, in addition to being a doubles factory he'd have to spend some time at third. If the narrative wants to be maintained at any rate. But Yandy isn't going to be the stand-in at third while Ramirez goes to second. The worst case scenario is that we see Michael Martinez. But this is an opportunity to see how some of the younger guys have advanced. Someone like Giovanny Urshela.
There was a time people were excited about Urshela. Specifically June 2015, when he hit .271 with a couple home runs. It turned out he didn't know how to hit major league pitching, but the defense was unmatched. He becomes a sort of younger Jack Hannahan for the Indians. Alternately, Erik Gonzalez could get a look. He's hit alright in Columbus, slashing .296/.329/.450 last year in 105 games. His brief stint with the big club saw him go 5-for-16, all singles. But he was versatile, and may make the team as the utility guy. Having Urshela along with him means two chances to see if one of these guys has grown up a bit. Basically, the idea is to see what these young almost-prospects have become.
Or Diaz could just hit his way onto the team, and suddenly everything is different. He is crushing the ball in Arizona, after all. If (and it’s unlikely, but still) he hits like something approximating what he’s done in the minors of late, and Ramirez continues to show his own brand of excellence in a new position, what do you do with Kipnis? He has a very good bat, shown immense strides in getting the hang of defense at second and gotten very good, and of course has been vital to the success of the team, But sometimes you get Wally Pipp’d and it’s all out of your hands when your Lou Gehrig shows up. Terry Francona did oversee something like this back in 2004 with Nomar Garciaparra and the Red Sox.
Garciaparra was perhaps the most beloved of Red Sox until his wrist injury, and even though he never returned to his best when he came back too quickly it was a little shocking the Sox dumped him so suddenly, and then won a World Series. That whole event wasn’t quite the same, the Red Sox needed a better glove at short and could get by on offense since they had Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz among others. But it was the kind of surprising trade of a fan favorite that can happen because of outside forces. Kipnis getting traded away is the last thing anyone wants, he’s awesome. But it’s not impossible. But if young guys turn out to be something incredible, suddenly his type of very good isn’t good enough. The end result would be great, the parting would just stink. It wouldn’t make real sense of course, because who plays left field next year? It would just create a weird situation. How do you bench a youngster who’s killing it and Jose Ramirez, who has earned everything he has? It’d be a good problem to have, but not one the Indians want to deal with. Yandy has just become so tantalizing, it’s a bit frustrating. He could be almost literally anything. We just want to see.
Realistically, and probably the best case (or second best, depending on how much you love Yandy Diaz) is the Indians suffering through a few weeks without Kipnis and getting a glimpse at the possible future of Ramirez at second base. They’re a contender, so under normal condition it’s a dreadful idea to “see what they have” out of some of their lesser touted prospects. But this is a nice dress rehearsal for whoever gets the pick. Down the line, in a year or so, the infield may gain a pretty different look, and Kipnis may get the chance to into Alex Gordon Mark Two.
But let’s hope for the Indians and fans’ sake that this is a blip, and the status quo is the path the Indians follow in 2017.