CLEVELAND — Jason Kipnis is doing his best to take the luster off the idea the Indians need to add star infielder Manny Machado at the trade deadline.
The Machado sweepstakes is one of the biggest stories in baseball as the non-waiver trade deadline draws nearer, a superstar available for half of a season to the highest bidder who could play in a role in altering a postseason race. In the Indians’ case, the question isn’t if they have the ammo to add Machado and build arguably the best infield in baseball. The question is if it’s worth the hefty price tag in prospects.
A subset of the situation is how much of an impact Machado can make over what the Indians currently have in relation to that price. Enter Kipnis, and the Indians needing to figure out if the benefit outweighs the cost.
Earlier in the season, it looked like the answer was a resounding yes. Kipnis started the season on a dreadful note — he had a .497 OPS through the end of April — while Machado was one of the hottest hitters in the game. That isn’t to say Machado wouldn’t still be a valuable addition, even if it displaced Kipnis. The Indians’ veteran second baseman is a former All-Star, but Machado qualifies as a star in the league today.
Lately, though, Kipnis has at least closed the gap, perhaps enough to swing part of the decision a bit toward the Indians keeping their cards and seeing the next hand instead of pushing all their chips into the middle of the table.
"We’re slowly returning back to form," Kipnis said. "I’ve been working hard to find it and be consistent with it. There’s little things each day that I have to go — a little check through, a little checklist to kind of make sure that I’m locked in. We’re starting to feel good again. I like it."
Since the beginning of June, Kipnis has hit .261 with a .364 on-base percentage, six home runs, five doubles, 17 RBI and three stolen bases. Machado has been a touch better, hitting .302 with a .373 on-base percentage, seven home runs, six doubles, 19 RBI and five stolen bases.
"I’m feeling a little bit more confident at the plate, seeing pitches better, the pitch selection obviously, just being balanced," Kipnis said. "At the beginning where I’d be chasing and stuff, now I’m balanced and staying back, I can see it being a ball. I think this is how I was earlier in my career. I’m happy to see that go back, too."
Indians manager Terry Francona spoke with Kipnis a few weeks ago, wanting to ensure that his veteran second baseman wasn’t focused on the unsightly .217 batting average that’s listed on the scoreboard every night. Rather, he wanted him to forget the first month and appreciate that he’d been hitting close to .300 for a couple of weeks.
"I said, ‘Kip, I’ve watched you now for six years,’ " Francona said. "I said, ‘You’re gonna do better.’ I said, ‘You can approach this a couple different ways. You can be like, Well, I’m hitting .210, I’m hitting .215, I’m hitting .220, I’m hitting .225, and beat yourself over the head. Or you can be smart enough to realize, Hey, I’m hitting .300 and I’m the player I need to be. I just wasn’t for the first couple months.’
"And I’ve tried to remind him of that a couple times because he’s actually done pretty well, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he does better."
It hasn’t been Machado-level production, but it’s a far cry from the disparity that existed earlier this season. If the Indians did acquire Machado — who reportedly the other day insisted he’s a shortstop, and the Indians would need him to play third base — Jose Ramirez would likely be moved to second base, leaving Kipnis without a set position (unless he’s included in the trade). He could potentially be moved to center field, as he was toward the end of last year and in the American League Division Series.
The Indians bringing in Machado would mean parting with some of their most valuable long-term assets. Fox Sports’ Jon Morosi reported, via a source, that any trade that involving Machado and Cleveland would need to include either Shane Bieber or Triston McKenzie, the club’s No. 2 prospect, a steep price to rent Machado’s services for four months.
Another consideration is this: the Indians do have some ammo to make an aggressive move, but it’s not infinite, and Kipnis playing reasonably well only bolsters the case that the club has other needs that should be addressed first. That surely means the bullpen and, perhaps to a lesser extent, it means the outfield as well.
The reliever market has plenty of controllable options that would fit the Indians’ contention window nicely. The outfield market is less saturated, but it remains an area of need nonetheless.
It could hurt to watch Machado go to another American League contender — namely the Yankees, who could easily slot Machado into an already loaded lineup. But the acquisition cost is sky high, and the Indians need to allocate their resources elsewhere if they want to view their window of contention as continuing through 2020 or 2021 rather than something that’s closing in a few months.
And, for the last several weeks, Kipnis has at least done his part to shift a greater percentage of the spotlight away from second base.