Indians get Jason Kipnis at a bargain on six-year, $52 million deal
The Indians announced Friday morning that they have signed second baseman Jason Kipnis to a six-year, $52.5 million extension with an team option for the 2020 season. In doing so, they have locked up their best player through his age-33 season, adding a crucial piece to the team's long-term core. That now includes Kipnis, catcher-turned-third-baseman Carlos Santana (signed through 2016 with an option for 2017), outfielder Michael Brantley (signed through 2017 with an option for 2018), catcher Yan Gomes (signed through 2019) and, the team hopes, Kipnis's eventual double-play partner, top prospect Francisco Lindor, who would be under team control through 2020 if he were to complete his first full year of service time next year in the wake of Asdrubal Cabrera's free agency.
Kipnis, who was drafted out of Arizona State University in the second round of the 2009 draft, took over second base full time in 2012 at the age of 25 and made his first All-Star team and collected some down-ballot Most Valauble Player votes last year at the age of 26. Possessed of a broad-based skill-set, Kipnis has good on-base skills, the potential for 20-home-run power (he hit 17 last year), can steal 30 bases a season (as he has in each of the last two), and is a solid fielder. He is easily the best second baseman in baseball under the age of 30 and may soon emerge as the second-best at his position, period, behind Robinson Cano. Kipnis has a very similar offensive profile to Dustin Pedroia and Ben Zobrist, and while he's not as good in the field as either of those two, he is 3 1/2 years younger than Pedroia and six years, the length of his new extension, younger than Zobrist.
Kipnis wasn't due to be arbitration eligible until after the coming season and wasn't due to hit free agency until after the 2017 season. Still, with this extension, Cleveland has purchased three extra years of team control, and it's hard not to think that they got a bargain in the process. Pedroia, for example, signed an eight-year, $110 million extension with the Red Sox last July that will take him through his age-37 season, beyond the typical expiration date for second basemen. Ian Kinsler, who follows Pedroia, Zobrist, and Kipnis in the heirarchy of the game's best second basemen, is playing out a five-year, $75 million extension with the Tigers, who paid an extra $30 million to acquire him from the Rangers for Prince Fielder. The same day that Kinsler signed his extension in April 2012, the Reds inked the then-30-year-old Brandon Phillips to a six-year, $72.5 million deal.
Then there's Robinson Cano's contract. Cano is undeniably the best second basemen in baseball, one of the best players at any position for that matter, but given the choice between signing the 31-year-old Cano for $240 million over ten years or the 27-year-old Kipnis for $52.5 million over six years (with a club option), I'd be surprised if there's a single general manager in the game who would prefer Cano and his contract. Kipnis is unlikely to ever be as good at Cano, but the Indians have secured roughly three-quarters of the player for less than one-quarter of the money. That's a formula for effective, small-market team building.
The contract that Kipnis' extension most resembles is the one the St. Louis Cardinals signed Matt Carpenter to less than a month ago. Like Kipnis, Carpenter was due to hit arbitration after the coming season and free agency after the 2017 season. Like Kipnis, he had a breakout season at second base in 2013, making his first All-Star team and picking up MVP votes. Both were college players who went pro via the 2009 draft. Carpenter signed for $52 million over six years with a club option for 2020, almost the exact same basic terms of Kipnis's contract. Carpenter, however, is a year and a half older than Kipnis and will be a third baseman going forward. Those last two facts may cancel each other out—third basemen tend to last longer than second basemen, who decline early due to the abuse they receive in the middle of the diamond. At the same time, the kind of production Kipnis can provide is harder to come by in the middle of the diamond than it is at a corner. I offered muted praise for the Carpenter contract at the time. Given that Kipnis is a true second baseman with a broader skill set who is 16 months younger and a far more important player to his team given the relative value of the players around him, I don't feel the need to mute my praise for Kipnis' contract. This is an extremely wise investment, and if the team develops some young pitching to go with their coalescing young lineup (no pressure, Danny Salazar, but let's not mention Trevor Bauer for now), Cleveland could find themselves in the wild-card race with increased regularity.