Jason Kipnis at Mahoning Valley in 2009.
Jason Kipnis is learning to play yet another position in the Arizona Fall League. Drafted a year ago as an outfielder and converted to second base in the Cleveland Indians' farm system this year, the 23-year-old is playing some third base in the Arizona Fall League. Whether this is the Indians' typical mad scientist approach to personnel or just a brief look-see remains to be determined.
The Indians are gaining a reputation as an organization that can't quite decide which role is best for a player. The front office throws around words such as "versatility" and "flexibility," and earnestly believes the future is better with such players. The truth is, they are masking players with defensive shortcomings and essentially turning out utility players instead of bonafide regular big-league players.
They had success with switching Victor Martinez from shortstop to catcher years ago, and somehow think they can catch lightning by moving anybody to any position that needs strengthening. The fact is that Martinez never had a shortstop's body and really was suited to catcher (though, of course, they couldn't stop there and also turned him into a first baseman).
They tried to move Trevor Crowe to second base and that was a one-week nightmare. "I think I made an error in every game I played there," Crowe quipped this summer. "It was not pretty."
He wasn't far off. In seven games at second base for Double-A Akron in 2006, he made six errors. Wisely, he was moved back to the outfield.
All the moving around now may be taking its toll on Kipnis, who had a fine season offensively this summer. After a hot start this month in Arizona, his batting average is down to .171.
On Wednesday, he played third base as another Tribe farmhand who regularly plays third or catcher, Adam Abraham, served as the designated hitter. A third Indians prospect, Roberto Perez, was the catcher.
Kipnis handled all his chances in the field and started an around-the-horn double play in the Peoria Javelinas' 5-4 win over Phoenix. He also went 1-for-4 with a walk and scored once as the leadoff hitter.
Perez was 0-for-3 with a walk and strikeout, dropping his average to .167. Abraham was 1-for-3 with a walk and strikeout and is batting .333.
At 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, Kipnis is not built like a prototypical third baseman, although a player with his skill set has seen time there recently in the big leagues -- Chone Figgins. The thinking may be that if either Kipnis or Cord Phelps, another career second baseman playing third in the AFL, can play third well enough, the Indians may consider using them at the position along with one of their holdovers instead of going out on the free agent market.
Third base is a huge problem in Cleveland. After trading away Jhonny Peralta, the trio of Andy Marte, Jayson Nix and Luis Valbuena did nothing to distinguish themselves at the position. At one time, Wes Hodges was considered a prospective third baseman. He was shifted to first base this year at Triple-A Columbus and is no longer an option. Jared Goedert hit well at Double-A Akron and Columbus as a part-time third baseman, but he has been moved to the outfield. Lonnie Chisenhall had a decent, but unspectacular season at Akron. The first-round draft pick in 2008 replaced Hodges as the annointed "third baseman of the future".
The Indians would do well to look at Kipnis at another problem spot -- second base. Neither Valbuena, Nix nor Jason Donald was exceptional there this year. Of course, Donald and Valbuena are both converted shortstops -- though in each instance these moves make sense. With Asdrubal Cabrera established at short, and with both Donald and Valbuena being a bit overmatched at that spot, they are better suited to second base. So is Nix, who has some pop at the plate -- when he makes contact.
Kipnis, however, thrived offensively as a second baseman this year. He also made 23 errors, which means he's not ready defensively to play in Cleveland -- where the goal is to improve the overall infield defense to help the Indians' starting pitchers who throw so many sinkers that turn into ground balls.
Kipnis has hit .307 in 162 games since being picked in the second round out of Arizona State in 2009. He hit .306 in 29 games at short-season Mahoning Valley that summer and split 2010 between Class A Kinston (.300) Akron (.311). He then joined Columbus for the playoffs and continued his hot hitting.
Chisenhall hit .278 with 17 homers and 84 RBI at Akron. He had 17 errors in 96 games, a bit better than the 22 boots he had in 100 games the previous year. He is working hard to improve on defense and should become a decent third baseman -- but he appears to be at least a year away.
So Phelps is being tried at third this fall. He has played nothing but second base since being Cleveland's third-round pick in 2008. He hit a combined .308 between Akron and Columbus this year, but had 16 errors.
Goedert batted .283 with 27 homers and 83 RBI between Akron and Columbus. In 94 games as a third baseman, he had 21 errors. Ouch.
All of these prospects seem to have some offensive skills, but are not particularly sharp on defense. They are athletic, however, and so the Indians would be well advised to just keep hitting hundreds, making that thousands of grounders to them every day -- at ONE position. Keep it simple at one spot, but make it high intensity. Maybe one of them will eventually get to Cleveland as a polished player.