Indians continue building energy with Kipnis signing

Cleveland Indians' Jason Kipnis gives high-fives during introductions before a baseball game between the Minnesota Twins and the Cleveland Indians, Friday, April 4, 2014, in Cleveland.

Tony Dejak/AP

CLEVELAND — The Indians celebrated the 20th anniversary of the first game at Jacobs/Progressive Field by making another move that they are hoping revives the energy, optimism but more importantly the competitiveness that the franchise had when they moved to the corner of Ontario and Carnegie.

After signing Michael Brantley and Yan Gomes, the Tribe made its biggest signing yet on the morning of their home opener, agreeing to a six-year, $52.5-million extension with All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis. The two sides agreed to a deal on Sunday but it wasn’t completed until he took a physical on Thursday when the team returned from Oakland.

It also came a day after Kipnis celebrated his 27th birthday. It also completed a three-year process where the Indians have attempted to get Kipnis secured long term.

"It is an amazing feeling to get it done. When you sign guys like Brantley and Gomes and core guys coming back, I’ve wanted to stay here," Kipnis said. "The ownership, the top showing us that they got the guys they believe in and that they can win games now. They want us to get comfortable and stick around."

Kipnis’ deal also means that 16 of the 25 players on the Opening Day roster are under club control thru 2016. For a fan base that was still simmering after contract talks with Justin Masterson broke down, getting Kipnis finalized was the best news they could receive.

Perceptions can be a hard thing to turn around, especially when you’re a franchise that had four straight 90-loss seasons from 2009-12 and where fans have mostly stayed away. Last year’s sellout crowd for the wild card game at Progressive Field rekindled memories of the golden days, when the stadium was packed. Nick Swisher has made it a point throughout spring training to say that this isn’t a one playoff appearance and done team.

A 3-1 start, which included a 7-2 win over Minnesota before a sellout crowd Friday, is one step but locking up your core shows everyone — from the players in the clubhouse to the fans — that you are serious about contending.

Brantley, who signed his extension at the start of spring training, said keeping the core players in tact was one of the things that was discussed during his negotiations.

Said manager Terry Francona about the extensions: "I think it’s great. I have a little bit of a unique seat because I’m close to Chris and his guys on the last road trip. I’m pretty close to the players so you get to hear the other side and watch them work through it and it’s pretty interesting. It takes a lot more work to get these things done than it would appear. It’s not fantasy money. It is real life dollars and cents and we have real-life challenges of being in our organization here in Cleveland. So to get it done was really exciting.

"I’m thrilled for the players because I think they get to go out and earn a living playing a game they love. They won’t take their foot off the gas but they know they’re taken care of. That’s important. I’m glad for them. It just has to work within the parameters of our ballclub. It’s not always the easiest thing to do."

If you want to know how far the Tribe has come in 18 months, listen to David Murphy, who signed here during the offseason. The outfielder said in the past that teams he played on would come in and expect a series win. Murphy said he saw a change last year when his Rangers dropped five of six to the Indians.

"There was something about their energy and enthusiasm and going into the offseason I wanted to be a part of it," he said. "They believe in their young players and it is kind of a trend going on in baseball. You see contracts going up and up and if you recognize talent early as a general manager it is obvious you want to get the most bang for your buck. With all of these guys it is a great move."

Over the past 18 months the Indians have signed six players to deals totaling $216.5 million. Kipnis’ deal, which includes a club option for 2020, is only eclipsed in terms of money by Swisher’s four-year, $56 million deal that he signed January of last year.

While the extensions may make many harken back to the John Hart days, these have been more of a mixture. Swisher, Murphy and Michael Bourn signed here as free agents, Gomes was acquired in a trade with Toronto and Brantley was the player to be named later in the 2008 trade with Milwaukee. And then there is Kipnis, who was drafted in the second round of the 2009 draft.

Kipnis, who was the Pac-10 Player of the Year in 2008, was already upset that he slipped to the second round. He was more upset when they asked him to move from the outfield to second base. As Antonetti said though, there were scouts in the organization who thought the move was worth the risk and development.

After hitting .200 in April last year, Kipnis rebounded and made the All-Star team for the first time. He batted .284 and led the Tribe in runs (86), hits (160), RBI (84) and steals (30). In his second full Major League season he became just the sixth Indian to eclipse the 15 home run/30 steal mark. He also was the first Cleveland second baseman since 1948 to lead the team in RBI.

"When I got drafted I looked at the organization they were in a little rut and having those 90-loss seasons. I wanted to be a part of the transformation to turn this organization around a group of players that can put the foot down and get it going in a winning direction," Kipnis said. "That’s what I’ve always set out to be, the type of player I’ve wanted to be. We weren’t just going to get free agency and leave. This is something we’ve set up to do. We’re hoping to finish the job."

To show what a gritty player Kipnis is, just go back to the ninth inning of Wednesday’s game against Oakland. After working the count deep, he hit a grounder that forced the runner at second but then beat the throw to first. The Tribe would rally to win the game 6-4 and take the series.

Said Jason Giambi: "What Kip offers he is so dynamic — plays defense, steals bases, hits homers, hits for average and drives in big runs. That’s the cornerstone you start with."

While Francona thinks the extension will help Kipnis play looser and will improve his numbers, the fact that this is a clubhouse that enjoys being around each other will play a bigger role. Brantley said that during the series in Oakland, A’s second baseman Nick Punto remarked how he saw how much fun the Indians were having and playing as a team.

For a squad that has its share of nicknames — The Goon Squad and Thundercats — there might be one more to add — The Fun Bunch.

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