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Jason Kipnis starts '12 like he finished '11

5/15/2012

One thing that surprised me a bit about the mid-May fantasy baseball rankings completed this week was how much I was willing to buy in to some of the hotter starts of 2012. For example, I think older veterans Adam Dunn and Carlos Beltran are legitimate and back to their old ways. I similarly had little fear in believing that Bryan LaHair, Edwin Encarnacion and Emilio Bonifacio weren't early-season flukes, and I thought they were not obvious sell-high choices. I'm a believer, apparently.

Regarding the second-base position, two notable players ended up in my top 100 even though they weren't in any of my colleagues' original top 100 and apparently remain that way. One is Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, whom I like for batting average but still have some doubts about overall. The other is Cleveland Indians future star Jason Kipnis, who gives me no such concerns.

Entering Tuesday's games, Kipnis holds the top spot among second basemen on ESPN's Player Rater, and he's 20th overall. Kipnis doesn't have the look of a fluky youngster overachieving. In fact, I watch the left-handed hitter and think he's a young AL version of Chase Utley, a smart, patient hitter, defender and base runner with upside. Kipnis is on pace for 28 home runs, 102 RBIs, 28 stolen bases and 106 runs, while hitting .281, and I don't see anything in his underlying numbers to worry about. That's why he settled in the No. 72 spot for me.

Kipnis made a nice impression in 36 games for the Tribe last season and will play his 36th game of 2012 Tuesday. His numbers are eerily similar to the ones from last year, giving credence to his skills and our trust in him. Last year he hit .272 with 7 home runs, 19 RBIs, 5 steals and 24 runs in 136 at-bats; this year he's at .281 with 6 home runs, 22 RBIs, 6 steals and 23 runs in 139 at-bats. I think it's enough of a sample size, when used in conjunction with minor league trends, to say that Kipnis is more than a potential 20-20 player who takes enough walks (he's on pace for 60) and should hit for average. The Indians have settled on hitting him second in the lineup, but it's not unreasonable to expect an Utley-like move to the No. 3 spot in time. Kipnis is still improving; so far in May, he's hitting .311 with a .898 OPS, 10 RBIs in 15 games and six walks versus six strikeouts.

The Indians are searching for a leadoff hitter, as the team features an AL-low .546 OPS from that spot. Johnny Damon and Michael Brantley haven't hit or walked, and perhaps Shin-Soo Choo's appearance there Monday will work out. What the team hasn't had to worry about is middle infield, where Kipnis is a future All-Star and clear top-10 option at second base and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, although not hitting for the same power as 2011, is having a better real-life season, with his OPS up 122 points.

The top of the second-base position for fantasy purposes remains fluid, with Dustin Pedroia, Ian Kinsler and Robinson Cano in that order -- although it's worth a debate -- and all in the first round or close. Dan Uggla, Ben Zobrist and Brandon Phillips aren't off to terrific starts, but there's no reason for panic, either. After that, believe it or not, I trust Kipnis. Rickie Weeks looks awful (a topic for another blog), Ryan Roberts barely hit our rankings, and who knows when Utley will return and to what level. Kipnis is 25 and didn't have the look of an elite prospect, and it's not like this fine start has him on the same level of the overall top-15 options. Still, I feel pretty good about him as a top-100 guy, and don't be surprised if he's in the same range as Zobrist and Phillips as a top-50 option by mid-June. Really, can we presume those veterans will end up 20-20 players? Kipnis is well on his way, so don't view his excellent start skeptically.