NORTH PORT, Fla. -- Acknowledging how significantly their respective roles have changed since they helped the Indians reach the 2016 World Series, Jason Kipnis and Josh Tomlin recently shared a laugh together.
“He was pulling out his drawer at his locker and it had like four pairs of new shoes, which most guys in the big league locker room have,” Kipnis said. “I told him, ‘If you would have told me four years ago after the World Series that four years down the road, I’d be in a side locker room camped up and I’m looking at your new shoes in the big league locker room, I’m going to ask you, “What the hell happened?”’”
Over the past four seasons, Tomlin has gone from a backend starter in Cleveland to a versatile reliever in Atlanta. His status as a beloved teammate and extra pitching coach helped him secure the comforts of a guaranteed, one-year, $1.25 million contract in November.
Meanwhile, Kipnis has gone from being a two-time All-Star with Cleveland to somebody who has had to settle for a Minor League deal both of the past two winters. He's come to Braves camp to fight for a bench spot with the likes of 2012 World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval, whose career has spiraled since he signed a five-year, $95 million deal with the Red Sox before the 2015 season.
Both of these former stars are now non-roster invitees just hoping to find a place on the Braves’ Opening Day roster.
“Those are two very productive Major League guys," said Braves manager Brian Snitker. "This is a new step in their careers because they want to continue to play. A lot of guys don’t want to do that. They’d rather retire than be a role player or a bench player. It’s hard to do that. Some guys can’t accept that.”
Kipnis, Sandoval and Ehire Adrianza are the top three candidates battling to join Johan Camargo on Atlanta’s roster as a backup infielder. Adrianza is the least established, but most versatile member of this trio.
Adrianza can also play each of the infield and outfield positions if necessary. Kipnis, who started his pro career as an outfielder, has primarily played second base.
Kipnis is at least much more defensively versatile than Sandoval, whose value doesn’t extend far beyond a bat that has been nothing more than average over the past three seasons. But if there is just one spot available, there’s at least a chance neither of these veterans makes the team.
“It’s just part of the gig,” Kipnis said. “It’s a position I put myself into by probably not playing up to the level I know I can the last couple years.”
Kipnis, who earned All-Star selections in 2013 and '15, has produced a meager .713 OPS (89 OPS+) over the past three seasons. However, the .799 OPS he produced against right-handed pitchers while with the Cubs last year does create some hope he could at least be a decent left-handed pinch-hitter.
Sandoval joined the Braves after being released by the Giants in September. The veteran infielder spent two weeks at Atlanta’s alternate training site before being added to the roster for the regular season finale. He struck out in two of the three at-bats he had during the postseason.
Sandoval’s defensive limitations significantly decrease his value, especially without the presence of a designated hitter. But the limited time he spent with the Braves last year motivated him to attempt to extend his relationship with what he views as a special team.
“I wanted to come back no matter what,” Sandoval said. “The team they had here last year, it was special to spend time with that group. I see how they handle things on the field and off the field together. I wanted to come back because I wanted to ride with these guys.”