Braves: Jason Kipnis is trending towards a big league utility role in 2021

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I’ll admit, when I saw that the Braves had signed soon-to-be 34-year-old Jason Kipnis to a minor league contract back on February 15th, I was as skeptical as you could be about his potential for the 2021 season. For the last four years, Kipnis hasn’t exactly done much with the bat, and given how long it’s been since his All-Star days, I figured it was doubtful Atlanta would get much from him this spring. 

Since 2017, Kipnis does have a rather decent .711 OPS while playing with Cleveland and the Cubs, although during that time period he’s averaged just 100 games per season, for a four-year combined bWAR total of just 3.4. The numbers don’t lie, Kipnis is barely an above replacement-level player at this point, and even that could be a bit of a stretch as the inevitable happens and his skills continue to deteriorate. 

But so far this spring, Kipnis looks to be a fine utility player for the Braves, and given the team really doesn’t need to roster another backup outfielder after Ender Inciarte (since both Austin Riley and Johan Camargo can handle the corner-outfield if needed), he could very well earn himself a job come Opening Day. 

 

Through Thursday’s off-day for the Braves, Kipnis is slashing .263/.333/.474 (.807 OPS) with a home run, a double and three RBI in his first eight games; that after scuffling to begin Spring Training with a 1 for 11 start. 

Perhaps Kipnis is able to somewhat revert back to his 2013-16 days in Cleveland, when he was a 3.5-WAR player who’s bat was good for 10-15 homers, 30 doubles and a .275 AVG — with a glove that could provide league-average defense in the infield. Obviously, expecting those exact numbers is a pipe-dream at this stage of his career, but maybe Kipnis manages a quarter of that type of production in a limited role off the bench in 2021. 

In terms of Braves players able to post productive seasons at the age of 34, the list is obviously long given the many all-time players that have come through Atlanta, like Hank Aaron and Chipper Jones, and even Gary Sheffield. Aaron and Sheffield both put up 6.8-WAR campaigns in 2003 and 1968, respectively, while Chipper’s 3.6-WAR performance as a 34-year-old in 2006 just barely cracks the franchise’s top 10 for hitters in their age-34 season. Remember when a 34-year-old Brian Jordan broke out for 25 homers, 97 RBI, a .295 AVG and 4.4 WAR back in 2001?

Yeah, this isn’t a realistic bar to set for a player like Kipnis, who has surpassed 4 WAR in a single season just once in his 10-year MLB career. This isn’t a Hall of Fame player that just so happens to be approaching his mid-30s

ZiPS projects Kipnis to log 454 PA for the Braves in 2021, totaling 118 games, which admittedly is a lot considering he’s on a minor league deal this year and isn’t even guaranteed a job. But if the veteran infielder does indeed have a little left in the tank, what’s a halfway realistic expectation that we truly believe Kipnis is capable of?

Looking back over the last 20 years at all Braves infielders (excluding catcher and first base), it certainly doesn’t look promising, as the trio of Dan Uggla, Jack Wilson and Kelley Johnson are the only Braves players in their age-34 seasons that pop up when doing a search on Baseball Reference, and neither of those three came anywhere close to 450 PA in their respective seasons (all managed no more than 49 games each); plus all of them were below replacement-level players, with Uggla’s 2014 campaign the worst (-1.0 WAR) and Johnson’s 2016 the best (-0.8).

Broaden the search back another decade and there’s a little more hope, thanks to Walt Weiss and Ozzie Guillen’s late-career performances in Atlanta in 1998, when the former put up 2.8 WAR and the latter 1.2. In fact, ’98 featured Weiss’ one and only All-Star season, and he wasn’t quite the caliber of player that Kipnis is. 

Of course, all of this could wind up a moot point. There’s a chance Kipnis doesn’t even make the major league club. As of now, my Braves 26-man roster includes Kipnis, however, Atlanta may not agree.

I have the Braves carrying a four-man starting rotation to open the season since they don’t really need a fifth starter until the end of the team’s second series with Washington. I also have Atlanta going with a nine-man bullpen, so that’s 13 spots remaining, which falls down to four once you account for the team’s regulars as well as William Contreras as the backup catcher. Jake Lamb, Inciarte, Camargo and Kipnis is my every-day bench, with Camargo having the slight edge over Ehire Adrianza at this point (though that’s very much subject to change given Johan’s inconsistencies). 

We’ll see what happens, but so far, Kipnis is looking about as good as you could ask for through 21 PA this spring. Sure, he started cold… but now he’s seeing the ball well. The biggest test will be if his strong performance continues. For now… I believe it will. 

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1 thought on “Braves: Jason Kipnis is trending towards a big league utility role in 2021”

  1. Kipnis certain would bring maturity and World Series experience to the team, as well as some flexibility defensively (2B and OF). Adrianza is having an excellent spring training, however, and hitting better than Kipnis and Camargo, who does seem to be playing defense better now at shortshop. At what point does Camargo’s history of bad attitude give Adrianza or (gasp) Kazmar a shot at making the team?

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