It’s difficult to talk about (what I presume to be) Jason Kipnis’ last season in a Cleveland Indians uniform without talking about the first eight.
The Indians earlier this month announced their intentions to decline Kipnis’ $16.5 million club option for 2020, effectively ending his tenure in Cleveland unless the Tribe decide to re-sign the veteran second baseman in the offseason (for a lot less than $16.5 million) to have him serve as a stop-gap for whichever minor leaguer is being groomed for that position.
The decision not to pick up Kipnis’ option for 2020 came as no surprise. $16.5 million is an exorbitant amount of money for any one player, but an especially untenable amount for a small market club like Cleveland to be spending on a player like Kipnis who has been in decline.
In 2019, among qualified second baseman, Kipnis ranked 18th in wOBA (.301), 17th in WRC+ (82), and 16th in WAR (1.1). That is about as middle-of-the-road as it gets. Unfortunately, when you’re the second-highest paid player on the team, average production is a problem. And Kipnis hasn’t been better than average since 2016, when he ranked 11th in wOBA (.347), 11th in WRC+ (114), and 8th in WAR (4.7) among second baseman.
But if I’m being honest, I don’t have much interest in looking at Kipnis from an analytics standpoint. These last three seasons have been a far cry from the Jason Kipnis who was named to the 2013 All-Star Game, before signing a six-year contract extension the following spring.
To me, Kipnis is one of the last reminders of a bygone Indians era that feels like a distant memory. He made his big league debut with the Tribe in July 2011, as the team was en route to their third consecutive season with a sub-.500 record. That same season, a pitcher named Carlos Carrasco made headlines with his temper seven days after Kipnis got the call-up. Corey Kluber also made three unremarkable relief appearances that year, allowing four runs and three walks over 4.1 innings. Grady Sizemore spent three stints on what we now call the injured list (then the disabled list). Jim Thome had returned to the team in August in a trade with the Twins, and even saw a statue erected of him outside the stadium a month later.
The following year, the Indians finished 68-94, their third season with 90+ losses in four years. It would be the third and final season under manager Manny Acta. Terry Francona was hired as his replacement and the rest, as they say is, history.
Looking back at the Indians’ roster from 2011, only Kluber, Carrasco, and Carlos Santana are left. Michael Brantley, Lonnie Chisenhall, Josh Tomlin, and Zach McAllister all hung around for several seasons before going their separate ways. I don’t know about you, but I’ll always associate the members of that core group with each other. They seemed to acknowledge as much at the end of last year, when members of that circle admitted to feeling like the 2018 season represented their “last hurrah” together.
And I can’t help but wish they could have written a better ending. Maybe paraded a World Series trophy through the streets of Cleveland before riding off the sunset. But if the last couple seasons have taught me anything, it’s that endings are very rarely satisfying. If you let them define the story, they can sour everything that came before. The last three seasons may come to define Kipnis’ legacy for you, if you let them. But I think I’d rather remember him as the “Dirtbag” who spent the last nine years of his MLB career doing whatever he can to help his team.
He may not have been a Francisco Lindor, or even a Michael Brantley, but he was — and always will be, no matter the name on the front of his uniform — one of us.