From everything we’ve heard, the conversation Terry Francona had with Jason Kipnis after the Cleveland Indians traded for Josh Donaldson was not a pleasant one.
Cleveland’s manager had been adamant about keeping Kipnis at second base for weeks. Despite that, the Indians acquiring Donaldson will indeed push Jose Ramirez from third to second, sending a frustrated Kipnis back to the outfield.
Unfortunately for him, this situation doesn’t end with a simple position relocation. Kipnis still needs to prove he deserves every day playing time as the postseason nears. Deciding whether or not that’s the case will put Francona’s trademark loyalty to the test.
We’ve seen Cleveland’s manager display allegiance to his veteran players before. It explains why outfielder Michael Brantley was given a playoff roster spot last year despite his not being fully recovered from an ankle injury. Why minor league call-up Yandy Diaz is on borrowed time despite showing a consistent ability to contribute on offense. Hell, it’s why Josh Tomlin is still here.
It also explains why Francona continually snubbed the suggestion to move his second baseman in the first place despite his continued trouble at the plate.
Kipnis has struggled mightily this year, boasting a batting average still hovering around .230. Despite this, it seemed like his position was set in stone.
Then the Donaldson trade went through.
That Francona had to double back on weeks of insisting Kipnis was staying put was awkward enough. However, he’ll be tested even further during the final month of the season when it comes to one of his longest-tenured vets.
Simply put, just because Kipnis is able to move to center field doesn’t imply he’s the Indians’ best option at that position. Couple it with his season-long struggles at the plate and you can see how Francona will have to figure out just how much playing time he can give him come the postseason.
Rookie Greg Allen has come on as of late, boosting his batting average from .209 to .238 since mid-July. His speed is not only a weapon on the base-paths, it also makes him a far better outfield option than Kipnis.
As a result, it would be foolish for Francona to simply boot Allen from the lineup to make way for his soon-to-be former second baseman. Doing so would be more evidence most of his decisions are driven by loyalty.
Kipnis needs to spend the next month convincing Francona his slump at the plate is behind him. He’s been coming around offensively over the past couple weeks, but he needs to prove this is more than just a hot streak.
At the same time, Francona still needs to make sure Allen gets a fair look, too. As mentioned, it wouldn’t make sense to shelve the best defensive center fielder on the roster to let Kipnis play there for the rest of the season. If Allen becomes the odd man out come playoff time, it needs to be because Kipnis proved he was Cleveland’s best option, and not because he’s been around longer.
It’s likely this decision won’t be easy for Francona. There isn’t much of a gap between Kipnis and Allen’s respective batting averages. The former has been with the Indians since 2011, the latter could be their center fielder of the future.
He also needs to make sure Kipnis is provided enough time to get used to playing in center again, while also ensuring Allen doesn’t start collecting rust. This all has to happen in the span of less than a month.
If I had to bet, I’d say Francona’s loyalty wins out again. I expect Kipnis to start in center come postseason while Allen is left on the outside. I’d also go even further and bet Rajai Davis gets the bench role many would prefer Allen to have in this situation.
Francona has at least implied he’s going to take a fair approach to the debate between Kipnis and Allen. If this is indeed true, he’s sure to have a very difficult decision on his hands in the next couple weeks.
If this isn’t the case, well, we’ll know exactly how he came to his final decision.