Posted: Fri February 28, 2014 11:45AM; Updated: Fri February 28, 2014 12:17PM
Albert Chen
Albert Chen>INSIDE BASEBALL

Overlooked early on, Jason Kipnis leads 2014 All-Underrated Team

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A second-round draft pick out of Arizona State in 2009, Jason Kipnis hit .284/.366/.452 last year.
A second-round draft pick out of Arizona State in 2009, Jason Kipnis hit .284/.366/.452 last year.
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Want to know where the chip comes from? Why the most underrated and underappreciated player in baseball runs to first base "as hard as any player that I've ever seen," says his manager, Terry Francona? Why he lays out for every extra inch, diving and skidding and sliding so often in the field that he went through eight uniforms last summer alone? Want to know why Jason Kipnis plays the game as if he still has everything to prove? "I've always played with a chip on my shoulder," the Indians' second baseman said on a recent morning at the team's training facility in Goodyear, Ariz. "And you know what? I never want it to go away. You always want to have that motivation burning inside you."

The chip comes from all the years everyone always wanted to talk about what Kipnis wasn't: Not tall, not fast, not big and strong, not good enough with the glove. Out of Glenbrook High in Northbrook, Ill., where he was an All-State outfielder and conference MVP, his best scholarship offer was a measly $400 book scholarship to Kentucky. "That pissed me off," he said. He transferred to Arizona State, and even after he was the 2009 Pac-10 Player of the Year, he slid to the second round of the 2009 amateur draft. "I had better stats than the guys I taken ahead of me, and to see them go earlier and get their higher signing bonuses, that really pissed me off," he said. After he arrived in the Indians' organization, Kipnis was told to make the switch from the outfield to second base. "I loved playing the outfield, so it was like a slap in the face to hear that they didn't think I was good enough to play center field," he said. "Always hearing what I wasn't, yeah, it always pissed me off."

It's time to talk about what Kipnis is as he enters the 2014 season: An elite second baseman in the American League, the most valuable player on the Indians, a rare talent who may become the next emerging star to sign a long-term contract. The Indians have approached Kipnis and his agent Dan Horwits of Beverly Hills Sports Council about an extension with the team, and a deal could get done before the season. Off the heels of an impressive 2013 season, Kipnis should land a handsome deal. Last year, after a dreadful April in which he hit .200/.269/.286 with just one home run—"I was getting asked every day when we were going to start hitting him eighth," Francona said—Kipnis took off in May, with six home runs over two weeks, and then went on to one of the greatest months ever for an Indians hitter. "He singlehandedly carried us for a month, when he literally hit his way onto the All-Star team," Francona said. Kipnis' 5.9 WAR last season ranked 10th among all position players.

Said Indians general manager Chris Antonetti: "The thing that goes under the radar with Kip is that he's a complete player. Yes, he's a very good offensive player with a good approach, high on-base [percentage] and power for a second baseman, but he also runs the bases extraordinarily well, he's an efficient base runner who steals bases and goes to first to third really well. His defense continues to be a work in progress for him, but he continues to strive to be a better defender, but even where he is now, he's a complete player who can impact the game in so many ways."

It's time to put Kipnis in the class of elite second basemen with Cano and Dustin Pedroia, a fellow Arizona State product who also knows something about being cast as the plucky, undersized infielder who could. Kipnis and Pedroia (who was five years ahead of Kipnis) never overlapped at Arizona State, but their stories share striking similarities: Before becoming AL second basemen, both switched positions (Kipnis was an outfielder at ASU, Pedroia a shortstop) and were second-round draft picks with identical signing bonuses ($575,000). "I have nothing but respect for him, because he had to do exactly what I had to do," Kipnis said of Pedroia. "I think he paved the way in many ways. He had to overcome all the people saying you're too short, you don't have enough power, you're not fast enough, and paved the way for guys where scouts don't really know what they're talking about. It's not all about projectability. If the guy's a ballplayer, he's a ballplayer."

Kipnis wants to be the best at his position—"Once you catch up to your peers, guys who've looked up to, you realize, hey, now I can hang with these guys, and that turns into, I want to be better than these guys"—and lead the Indians to their first back-to-back postseason appearances for the first time since 1998-99. "It was awesome to see Kip, at the end of last year, care so much about the team winning," Antonetti said. "When the team lost in that playoff game, he took it extraordinarily hard. There's the transition of a lot of young players, an initial focus of just wanting to get to the major leagues, and then a focus on what they need to do to stay here. For most players, it is an individual focus. Kip has now evolved to that point where he's thinking about the team. Regardless of what his performance is, he's focused on whether the team won or lost that night. To see that growth, where he's evolved to that point where he's thinking about the team, makes me really excited about this year and his future."

JAFFE: Can Indians make it back to the postseason in 2014?

For now, Kipnis remains one of the most under-appreciated players in the game. Herewith, the rest of our All-Underrated lineup:

C: Jonathan Lucroy, Milwaukee Brewers

When it comes to the art of framing pitches, no one is better. Lucroy can rake, too: Over the last two years, he's hit .295/.350/.477, and last year, from June 1 to the end of the season, he hit .302/.362/.505 with 15 home runs. The Brewers are paying him just $14 million over the next four years, making him one of the best bargains in the game. He's already an elite catcher, and at 27, he'll only get better.

1B: Edwin Encarnacion, Toronto Blue Jays

Over the last two years, only two players have hit more home runs and driven more runs than Encarnacion—Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis—and since 2012, Toronto's first baseman ranks fifth in slugging.

2B: Jason Kipnis

SS: Ian Desmond, Washington Nationals

Over the last two seasons, he's posted a higher WAR than any other shortstop in the game. Power, speed, defense: The Nats' overlooked shortstop has it all.

3B: Kyle Seager, Seattle Mariners

One AL pitcher said last week: "He's so underrated. He's one of the smartest, best pure hitters in the game." Seager has posted back-to-back 20-homer seasons and since 2012 has the seventh-highest WAR among third basemen, ahead of Ryan Zimmerman.

RF: Gerardo Parra, Arizona Diamondbacks

A slew of injuries in the D-backs' outfield last season finally opened up an everyday spot for Parra, whose all-world defense—he tied with Andrelton Simmons for most Defensive Runs saved in 2013—makes him one of the league's most underappreciated players.

CF: Carlos Gomez, Milwaukee Brewers

One of the few true five-tool talents in the game, Gomez has more than an elite glove. In 2013, he was the first Brewer ever to hit 20 home runs and steal 40 bases in a season.

LF: Starling Marte, Pittsburgh Pirates

Marte in his first full season hit. 280/.343/.441 with 41 steals and 48 extra-base hits, playing excellent defense, too. With Andrew McCutchen and Marte, the Pirates have two dynamic outfielders locked up through 2018.

SP: Mike Minor, Atlanta Braves

He gets lost in the shuffle in the Braves' rotation, even though he was the only pitcher on the NL East champs to top 200 innings, posting a 3.21 ERA and 181 strikeouts. He's durable, and at 26, he could take the next step in 2014.

RP: Greg Holland, Kansas City Royals

The AL's best closer struck out an outrageous 103 hitters in 67 innings while racking up 47 saves. Yeah, closers are overrated, but Holland isn't.

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