CLEVELAND (92.3 the Fan) – Cleveland Indians Manager Terry Francona has never been afraid to get creative with his outfield, especially in order to fit another bat into the lineup.
In National League parks, the skipper has worked first baseman Carlos Santana into the mix at the corner outfield spots to clear room for Edwin Encarnacion to play first.
With Bradley Zimmer roaming center field, the team was set with his gold glove-caliber defense despite a struggling bat. Zimmer broke a bone in his left hand on Sunday and though he has not been ruled out, the assumption at the moment is that he will not play again this season.
Austin Jackson, Abraham Almonte, Tyler Naquin and Lonnie Chisenhall all remain options in center, but Francona has someone else in mind to fill the void.
Two-time All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis.
The decision was born mostly out of the success of the current infield.
“If he’s able to handle it, all of a sudden you go from moving somebody out of the infield — because we’ve got a really good thing going there — to adding his bat in the lineup in center field,” Francona said.
The second baseman will work with Bench Coach Brad Mills in center during his rehab from a strained right hamstring, and made a sliding catch in center while shagging fly balls in batting practice Monday.
Kipnis was an outfielder at Arizona State and played 25 games at Short Season A Mahoning Valley in 2009, 18 in left field and 7 in center.
“We’ve just got to get him enough reps where, again, this is all if he could do it, where he’s comfortable and get his swing back,” Francona added. “We actually have time to do that.”
The 30-year old admitted that his main focus in on health and that moving from his primary position does sting his pride a little, but also that he thought about the transition himself.
“I just want to play,” Kipnis said. “I thought about it for a second after Zimmer went down. And then Tito said he wanted to talk today, and I wasn’t sure, and then it kind of hit me right before the meeting. I was like, ‘He might actually ask me about this.’ And it happened.”
There are two main concerns with Kipnis in the outfield, that health being the main one.
He has never really been labelled an ‘injury-prone’ player, but he has dealt with issues this season. Kipnis started the year missing most of Spring Training and the first 19 days of the regular season with a shoulder issue, and has since missed almost two months with the injury to his hamstring. Neck stiffness was also an issue earlier in the year.
The idea of moving a player dealing with leg problems to a position that requires the most sprinting of any on the diamond seems a bit counterintuitive. Though with his injury troubles and the emergence of the current infield, there could be a sense of ‘what do we have to lose?’ with a potential re-aggravation.
Another issue is that Kipnis is not thought of as more than an adequate defender, even at a position with less value. There has been an uptick in his defensive numbers in the two years prior to an injury-riddled 2017, but for his career, Kipnis has -11 defensive runs saved, -7.5 UZR and a -1.4 UZR/150.
Those are not numbers that sound like they would translate well to one of the three most important positions on the field, and that does not include Kipnis’s perceived weak spot in the field. The second baseman has range, but does not have a great arm, an aspect of defense that is not accounted for at second base by FanGraphs.
But as Francona said, the focus is more about getting Kipnis’s bat back in the lineup. He has struggled to a .296 wOBA and 78 wRC+ while battling injury, but has produced offensive seasons well above average in two years prior.