CLEVELAND -- Jason Kipnis once again sounds as if he has something to prove.
Kipnis essentially struggled through a lost 2017. He opened the season on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation. He returned in late May but never got going offensively, starting his season just 5-for-31 and hitting .232 with a .693 OPS in the first half.
It was a sharp decline in production from his career norms. And it was particularly noticeable considering he had just put together two of the best offensive seasons of his career in 2015 and 2016, when he earned an All-Star selection and posted an OPS of .811 or better both years.
He then hit the disabled list again in July with a right hamstring strain, an injury he aggravated in August. By the time he returned to the lineup in September, he barely had enough time for an on-the-fly tryout in center field heading into the postseason.
He finished 2017 with only 90 games played and an 0.7 fWAR. In 2015 and 2016, he posted seasons of 4.9 and 4.8 fWAR, respectively -- the third-highest total among qualified second basemen in that time period. It makes the Indians' 102-win season and 22-game winning streak slightly more impressive, that much of it came without Kipnis' usual contributions.
About to turn 31 in April, Kipnis has continued to revamp his workout routines to put more of an emphasis on flexibility instead of straight weight training in an effort to ensure he doesn't run into similar problems.
"It was to rehabilitate my legs and hamstrings and get those healthy, it was just to get everything where I want it to be to have a bounce-back season and contribute the way I know I can," Kipnis said. "It helps reading some people telling you that you are done and all that stuff, that you're on the wrong side of 30, and it's over. But you hear that three years ago and then two years ago, so it's up to the player to say, 'Hey, if this is what you want, this is the way you want to go, then put in the work.' So I've had a really good offseason."
Kipnis also grinded through a rough season in 2014, when he tried to play through an oblique injury but had poor results. He said that was around the time he became too stiff as a result of his workouts, and it showed.
"You learn and you grow," Kipnis said. "You learn what's important and what's not important when you're training. I don't need to be maxing out on a bench press. I don't need to be doing stuff that'll get me stiff, stuff that'll kind of prevent me from being the best player that I can. It's not just getting stronger, it's also getting more flexible. It's also aligning my spine a little right so that my back and hamstrings aren't kind of being yanked on."
Kipnis' spot not only in the lineup but potentially on the roster was put into at least some question this offseason. The Indians liked their defensive alignment with Jose Ramirez at second base and Yandy Diaz and Giovanny Ursula at third base. That pushed Kipnis to center field at the end of September, but that was a temporary fix and only due to center fielder Bradley Zimmer being on the disabled list.
With Zimmer healthy, there were a couple different scenarios for where Kipnis might play in 2018, though the signing of first baseman Yonder Alonso -- which in turn means Michael Brantley, when healthy, will stay in left field -- made that picture much clearer.
Indians manager Terry Francona has said that nothing has been set in stone, and there are several variables that could change things during spring training. For example, if Brantley isn't ready by Opening Day, some things could be shifted around, including Kipnis playing some left field. But, in all likelihood, the plan is for Kipnis to again return to second base, pushing Ramirez back to third.
"More than likely he plays second," Francona said. "The winter isn't over yet. The way we're aligned, it certainly looks like that's the right thing to do. He's preparing for that. Jose will shoot over to third. Whether we have Brantley right at Opening Day or maybe a little later, he goes to left. And we stay in our alignment."
Kipnis is still looking to talk with Francona and president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti to nail down a plan.
"You know, I tried to show last year, I'll play wherever they want," Kipnis said. "Second base is what I've become used to. It feels good to have 1/8Francona3/8 say that or be a part of the lineup or be part of this thing going forward. Personally, I think we're at our best when I'm contributing. But if I'm not contributing, who am I to say that I'm the best option? I think when I'm healthy, I think there's no one better there. I plan to prove that."
Combine the positional questions from this winter with Kipnis' salary (he's owed a base salary of $13.5 million in 2018, $14.5 million in 2019 and has a club option for 2020 valued at $16.5 million with a $2.5 million buyout) and he became a natural trade candidate for a club needing to allocate its resources in the best possible way.
One report indicated that the Indians nearly had a deal in place with the New York Mets, but it was shot down at the last minute, most likely by ownership in New York.
"There's nothing I can do about it," Kipnis said of the rumors. "That's part of the business. Guys get traded all the time. They know I love playing here and want to stay here, but I understand the business side of it. Stuff like that is usually out of the player's control and our job is only to take care of what we can take care of, so I just worry about getting ready for the season."
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