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Inbox: Where should the Indians put Kipnis?

Beat reporter Jordan Bastian answers questions from fans
October 16, 2017

What's the future of the Indians' infield? Does Jason Kipnis move back to second? Jose Ramirez back to third? Could Kipnis be on the trading block during the offseason? -- Bill A., New YorkI don't think there is a clear answer for this one right now. In a recent sit-down

What's the future of the Indians' infield? Does Jason Kipnis move back to second? Jose Ramirez back to third? Could Kipnis be on the trading block during the offseason?
-- Bill A., New York

I don't think there is a clear answer for this one right now. In a recent sit-down with Chris Antonetti, the Indians' president of baseball operations, he said that Kipnis' versatility to play either second base or the outfield will be factored into the team's offseason planning, but Cleveland does not have him locked into one position right now.
"Some of that will be dependent upon the guys we have," Antonetti said, "and some of it will be dependent upon what opportunities are out there externally for us. I don't think we need to make that decision today. I think Kip deserves a lot of credit for working really hard and going out there and becoming an option as an outfielder. He put in a lot of work to make that happen. To have a guy that now has the versatility -- we talk about it all the time as we build rosters -- having guys that have versatility to play multiple positions is an asset for us."
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When Kipnis was deemed ready to return in September, he moved to center field for a couple reasons. First and foremost, there was a need in center with Bradley Zimmer injured. Beyond that, Cleveland really liked Ramirez's play at second base, as well as the combination of Yandy Diaz and Giovanny Urshela at third. It's very possible that the Indians opt to stick with that infield alignment for 2018, making Kipnis a possibility for the outfield.
Here's the catch: Zimmer is expected to be healthy and ready to go for Opening Day in 2018. So, where does Kipnis fit if he's not in center? Left field would be the most logical spot, but Cleveland is also currently weighing whether to pick up the $11 million team option on left fielder Michael Brantley's contract. If Brantley is not retained, then that would open the door for Kipnis (scheduled to earn $13.7 million in '18) to move to left.
If Brantley does stick around as the left fielder, that's when it would make more sense to move Kipnis back to second and Ramirez over to third again. All of that said, Kipnis' contract ($14.7 million due in '19 and a $16.5 million team option for '20) definitely makes him a trade candidate over the offseason, given the potential positional logjam. Kipnis is coming off a down year (.705 OPS), but it's also worth noting that his two subpar seasons within the last five years have injuries at the root of the struggles. When healthy, Kipnis has been a very productive hitter.

Lonnie Chisenhall's status could depend on what direction the Indians go with Brantley, right fielder Jay Bruce and first baseman Carlos Santana, who are both free agents. Chisenhall, who earned $4.3 million last season, can play all three outfield positions. If it's hard to see where Chisenhall fits on the roster (or if the Indians feel someone like Tyler Naquin can fill a similar role at a lower cost), then Chisenhall certainly would be a trade candidate. Among the arbitration-eligible players you mentioned, Zach McAllister might be a non-tender candidate, depending on how the bullpen situation shakes out this winter.

The bullpen is considered the most volatile aspect of a Major League roster, so finding a reliever as durable as Shaw (MLB-leading 378 appearances from 2013-17) is rare. Along those same lines, there is not a surplus of relievers who find themselves in position to sign a multi-year contract as a six-year free agent. I'd fully expect Shaw to gauge his options in free agency to take advantage of this moment in his career. That diminishes the chances of him being back in the Indians' bullpen.

At the season-end sit-down with local reporters, Antonetti said the team has interest in keeping Jackson in the fold. Now, this does not seem like a situation that will be resolved until deeper into the offseason. Last year, Cleveland got Jackson on a Minor League contract on Jan. 25. He dealt with some minor injuries, but was a godsend to the Tribe's depleted outfield when on the field. He posted an .869 OPS in 85 games and provided depth at all three spots. The Indians will have plenty of other outfield decisions to sift through before considering how Jackson might fit into the 2018 roster puzzle.

As things currently stand, Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger and Danny Salazar are all in the 2018 picture, and righty Josh Tomlin has a very affordable $3 million team option. That leaves little room in the rotation for Merritt. It is worth noting, however, that the lefty has no Minor League options remaining, meaning he can't be sent back to Triple-A without first being exposed to waivers. That does put him in good position to compete for a spot on Cleveland's Opening Day pitching staff in 2018.
I try and stay as positive as I can, but this year's early exit hit me far harder than last year's World Series loss. If this didn't have "our year" written all over it, I don't know what will. Can you just provide any sort of optimism after crumbling this year and possibly losing a number of key players over the winter?
-- Rex H., Cedar Rapids, Iowa

In my opinion, the biggest source of optimism should be this: Cleveland is retaining the bulk of its historic pitching staff. The Indians' staff ended 2017 with 31.7 WAR (per Fangraphs), which was the highest single-season mark in baseball history, topping the 1996 Braves (29.5). The Tribe has the ability to keep most of that group together, including the entirety of the starting rotation. That's a very good foundation for continuing the club's quest to win the World Series next year.

Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and Facebook.