At the beginning of October, the Cleveland Indians made it very clear that while they have enjoyed their nine years with second baseman Jason Kipnis, his time with the team was at an end. They opted against offering him a $16.5 million option on Kipnis and chose to exercise their $2.5 million buyout instead, making the 32-year-old a free agent going into the 2019 offseason.
Kipnis, a two-time All-Star, is still offensively productive, hitting .245/.304/.410 in 2019 and reaching a 1.1 fWAR as well. His 82 wRC+ isn’t going to give anyone goosebumps, but he has been fairly consistent over the past three seasons, and that’s the exact kind of player the Tigers could not only benefit from, but also realistically sign.
MLB Trade Rumors has indicated that the Indians would be open to a Kipnis reunion at a much-reduced rate, so his own team is hedging their bets that he won’t be making big money on the free agent market.
Tigers fans have learned that they must be measured in their expectations during the rebuild period, and less sought after free agents will be more readily and cheaply available than bigger name guys. Kipnis is a perfectly serviceable second baseman with a 3.5 UZR last year. For a team that turned to Josh Harrison last season, Kipnis is a very similar type of player, one who really fits the current build of the Tigers as they slog through another two years of low-to-no spending.
The one area of moderate concern regarding Kipnis — which could actually help the Tigers get him at a good rate — is his injury history. He missed time last season because of a fracture to his wrist that required surgery. He also missed large chunks of the 2017 season due to a variety of injuries.
The last thing the Tigers need, especially after the failed experiment of Josh Harrison, is another player they can’t depend on to take the field game after game. With Kipnis getting his wrist surgery late in September, it’s hard to say how he’ll fare with baseball activity, but he’s still a player very worth the Tigers taking a long and serious look at.
If we take a look at the deal inked between Ian Kinsler and the San Diego Padres last season, he has slightly better numbers than Kipnis, but is also five years older, and got a two-year $8 million contract. Jonathan Schoop had very similar numbers in 2018 to Kipnis’s 2019, and got a one-year $7.5 million offer. The latter feels more in line with the Tigers, who signed Harrison to a one-year $2 million deal, so something in line with $4 million for a year would feel like a max-level offer for the Tigers.
They would be wise to consider waiting, though. There are some interesting options on the market for 2020 at second base that might make Kipnis less sought after, one of them being a surprising Eric Sogard, who so impressed with the Tampa Bay Rays late in the season he netted a 2.6 WAR and likely made a case for a major league deal this coming offseason. Names like Brian Dozier and the aforementioned Schoop will get some looks as well.
Given the current state of the free agent market, the Tigers should watch Kipnis but not bite too early. The option to potentially get themselves a one-year bargain deal absolutely exists, provided the Indians don’t decide to bring him back using the same methods.
One of the biggest benefits to getting Kipnis in a Tigers uniform would mean limiting his opportunities to score against them. In 2019, he hit .331/.385/.570 against the Tigers and lifetime he’s hit .251/.315/.381 with nine home runs and 52 RBIs. Similarly, he’s proven himself particularly strong against the Kansas City Royals and the Minnesota Twins thanks to his years of play with the Indians, which could benefit the Tigers as they take on the Royals and Twins 19 times year.
For the Tigers, a team hoping to put a watchable product on the field next year at a low cost, a player like Jason Kipnis is an ideal target.