The Indians have an interesting opportunity in Jason Kipnis who, after just two seasons, is showing promise to be one of the greatest second basemen in team history, both offensively and defensively. In the American League, he ranks among the top three active players at the position, along with Dustin Pedroia and Robinson Cano. Because of his age, he is already under team control through 2017, so an extension would have more to do with keeping him around for less money, rather than for a longer period.
In a similar situation a few years ago, the Indians decided to opt for the extension, keeping a young outfielder through his arbitration years with guaranteed money, setting a record for most money given to a player his age. In 2006, Grady Sizemore signed a six year $23.4M contract, keeping him around through 2011 with an option for 2012. While many Indians' fans consider this a mistake, they are only considering his last three seasons (2010-12) when he had a cumulative WAR of just 0.6 while earning over $18 million. This had more to do with the nature of back-loaded sports contracts, however, as he earned less than $10M during the first four years of the deal when he had a WAR of 21.2. There is no question that he ultimately earned that contract (although not the subsequent $5M deal for 2012). It was warranted in the first place as well as through his year 24 season, his most similar player according to Baseball Reference was Barry Bonds.
Getting back to Kipnis, the similarities are astounding. His nickname is dirtbag, for an aggressive high risk defensive style similar to that of Sizemore. He is among the top offensive players in the league, especially from a speed stand point and they were the last two players to steal 30 bases in a year multiple times. Their WAR through parts of three seasons were very similar as well (Sizemore 12.9 in 363 GP, Kipnis 11 in 337 GP). With a slight increase for baseball contract inflation (which goes up much faster than real inflation), Kipnis could be expected to accept a similar deal to the one Sizemore signed after his second season.
His contemporaries (Cano and Pedroia) both signed deals prior to reaching arbitration with Cano taking a four year deal for $30M and Pedroia enjoying a seven year $40.5M contract. The advent of all these great second basemen at the same time harkens back to the mid-1990's when power hitting short stops became the norm and Miguel Tejada, Nomar Garciaparra and Derek Jeter took the league by storm.
Kipnis has one more year before he begins arbitration in 2015. This means he will make a slight raise over league minimum in 2014. The following year, if he continues playing at his current level, it is hard to believe he would be given less than $7M as an All-Star caliber second baseman who plays more than 150 games a year. It is hard to guess how much a top level second baseman would make in his later years of arbitration because they are generally signed long term long before this. Here is an estimated break down of the difference between salaries if he were to go through arbitration or if he were to sign a Pedroia sized contract this offseason.
|Arbitration||7 Year Deal|
While the Indians would ultimately end up paying half the amount if they didn't sign him for seven years now, they would also lose three years assuming he signed elsewhere in free agency (and if they couldn't sign him by 2017, there is no doubt that he would be going elsewhere). It may seem a long time in the future and a big risk, but in a sport where players are drafted and don't make a difference for half a decade, the future always has to be kept in mind. There is also a risk, but from the players standpoint, their whole life is a risk. A torn meniscus or broken bone could ultimately end up being a career ending injury, all of a sudden turning a potential multi-millionaire into a regular civilian. This risk is the only reason a superstar like Kipnis would be willing to sacrifice potential hundreds of millions for guaranteed tens of millions.
This type of player doesn't come around often. Not only is Kipnis one of the top three offensive players at his position in the league, but unlike another high potential young second baseman the Indians once had (who was traded to the Reds), he is a great club house presence as well. This isn't just some other player used to fill out a roster, this is a player to build a roster around. The Indians should absolutely show Kipnis the money to keep him around long term right now. If they wait until after next season, things are only going to get more expensive.
Hopefully, Kipnis will be circling the bases for the Indians for years to come.