“We swore we’d live forever”
Jason Kipnis didn’t get the bunt down in the ninth inning Wednesday night. But that’s not the part of the story that intrigues Terry Francona.
It was what Kipnis did afterward.
For one, Kipnis made the most of what had quickly become a two-strike count by advancing the runner from second to third on a fielder’s choice. He then swiped second to set up the two-run single from Michael Brantley that would give the Tribe the go-ahead in what turned out to be a 6-4 win.
Equally important, though, Kipnis offered no complaint about getting the bunt signal in the first place, even though it was a rare request for a No. 3-hole hitter.
“You see a lot of guys not get the bunt down,” said Francona, “strike out, come back, and they’re mad at you because you asked them to bunt. And we lose.”
The Indians won last year in large part of the system of selflessness Francona helped instill. With the wins came the so-called culture, the camaraderie and the looseness with which this club gets the most out of its talent and has fun doing so.
And with all of the above has come, in recent weeks, the contractual stability that will keep this club largely intact for the long haul.
Kipnis’ six-year, $52.5 million deal was announced Friday as an appetizer to a highly anticipated home opener. It was the latest in a string of affordable extensions that also roped in Brantley (four years, $25 million) and Yan Gomes (six years, $23 million).
Staff ace Justin Masterson is, to this point, left out of the loop, given that the going average annual rate for established starters – even on short-term deals – can be a punitive one for a small-market club. For his part, Masterson still holds out hope he’ll join his buddies in the extension assembly line at some point this season, and Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said Friday that the Kipnis/Masterson equation was not an either/or. The club still has the financial flexibility to make something happen, should talks re-engage at, say, the All-Star break.
“I imagined a lot of these [deals] would be happening here in some way, shape or form,” Masterson said. “There’s still some hope there. It’s just about what’s reasonable. We’re all working through it.”
On that front, the future forecast for the rotation is still largely uncertain. But what the Indians have accomplished in this signing spree is a sense of stability in the lineup that simply didn’t exist a relatively short time ago. And if you ask their AL Central peers, they’ll tell you it was a lineup worth locking into.
“Their parts all work together,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “They can run, they can steal, they hit-and-run, they’ve got great bunters in situations, they’ve got a little bit of pop in there, too. They’re a tough baseball team. There’s really no breaks in their lineup.”
Compare the Tribe’s situation now, with the core largely intact and 16 members of the 25-man roster under contractual control through at least 2016, to the winter before 2012, when a certain segment of the fan base was misguidedly freaking out about the lack of veterans under control beyond that pending season, and it’s night and day.
The industry perception of the Indians has evolved, as well. The arrival of Francona and Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn before the 2013 season was a welcomed departure from the days in which the Indians were akin to second-class citizens in the free-agent circuit. The Wild Card playoff entry that followed legitimized the rhetoric and created an aura of expectation for 2014.
“Having stability is good,” Francona said, “but having it with the right guys is better.”
Brantley’s contract is a reasonable estimation of his arbitration value, with a bargain-basement bid on what would have been his first free-agent year. It will be an equal exchange of dollars for production if Brantley stays the course. If he improves in the power or speed department, it could be a steal.
The Gomes contract is, in some ways, a more courageous one on the part of the Indians, simply because the sample-size upon which it was conceived is so tiny. Of course, that’s why the total investment is so relatively tiny, too, and Gomes seems capable of living up to his end of the bargain with his defensive input alone.
As for Kipnis, the Indians already controlled him through 2017, which is his age-30 season. So you could argue there wasn’t a great deal of incentive to rush to the bargaining table, knowing what we know about how rapidly second basemen can start to show their age. That said, a $52.5 million guarantee seems like a great value, especially when compared to the six-year, $72.5 million extension Brandon Phillips signed with the small-market Reds just two years ago — <i>entering</i> his age-30 season.
The 27-year-old Kipnis is already considered an elite second baseman, with even more upside if he can put together two halves as strong as his first half from ‘13. The Indians have reason to feel it’s coming, in part because Kipnis has already demonstrated the diligent work ethic it took to convert to second base from the outfield in the first place. In the wake of a year in which Kipnis finished third among MLB second basemen in OPS (.818), second in stolen bases (30) and third in RBI (85), he and the Indians finally found common contractual ground, more than two years after they first engaged in extension talks.
Naturally, this deluge of deals lends itself to comparisons to the early 1990s, when John Hart and the Indians practically invented the extension scheme. But in today’s game, it’s the only way to do business. The key, of course, is having guys worth investing in. The Indians are fortunate not only to have core pieces that fit the formula but also genuinely work well together and demonstrate the selflessness it takes to succeed without superstars.
“When you have teams that are beating you and laughing in the dugout, too, guys [on the other side] are like, ‘We don’t know what to do with this team,’” Kipnis said. “That’s the best atmosphere to be in.”
It’s an atmosphere the Indians are going to great lengths to maintain.