It’s yet to be announced when exactly Jason Kipnis will return to Cleveland, but after playing consecutive games in Columbus. While he was likely set back a little when he was hit in his hand in Akron, his two hit night on Sunday (a single and a double) shows that he’s about as ready for his return as he’s going to be.
Since the season started, the obvious move to make room for Kipnis would be to send Yandy Diaz to AAA. He was, after all, the player who benefited from Kipnis’ injury in the first place when a roster spot was made available. However, the Indians have already made one change that was a bit of a surprise when they sent down Tyler Naquin over Abraham Almonte once Lonnie Chisenhall returned. It’s possible the Indians could make a similar, but more extreme decision this time by keeping Diaz on the 25 man roster and instead send release either Michael Martinez or Austin Jackson.
To start, this is a long shot. Sending Yandy to AAA would allow the Indians to retain control over all players involved (although the chances of a team selecting Martinez off waivers are slim) and control Diaz’s service time. Chances are, the Indians were planning all along to manipulate his service time as they have with players in the past, most notably Francisco Lindor, and only brought him up to start the season with the expectations that he would spend at least a month in AAA later on in the season.
That being said, all contractual issues could be considered moot for a team attempting to win a World Series with a limited window. Who cares if Diaz is eligible to become a free agent in 2024 or 2025 when the team could be completely different by 2021 and the current focus is to win a World Series in 2017?
If the Indians were running all cylinders right now, sending down Diaz would be an easy decision, but instead they are 5-7 and having particular issues scoring runs. Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Michael Brantley, Almonte and the newly added Chisenhall are all hitting well, but it seems the rest of the order can’t buy a base hit. Diaz is in between the hot hitters and the cold, hitting safely in 11 of 44 at bats, but with only one extra base hits. He has been a surprisingly successful defender at third, but that part of his game will likely be removed once Kipnis returns as Ramirez will head back to the hot corner.
Where keeping Diaz would be the greatest benefit would be in the versatility he had been toted for prior to this season. The Indians have been working out Diaz in the outfield for the last year including this off-season in the Venezuelan Winter League and he was a second baseman in Cuba when he played for Villa Clara. If he were to stay after the return of Kipnis, he could continue to play often although it wouldn’t be in a consistent role. The right hander doesn’t have spectacular numbers against left handers, but does have better numbers than Brandon Guyer and Almonte, two players who could be regular starters against left handed pitchers. Of course, thanks to stat cast we have more to go off than just numbers.
The charts above show the average exit velocity and launch angle for Yandy Diaz and Austin Jackson. As you can see, Diaz is destroying the ball, but rarely hits the ball off the ground. Jackson also rarely hits the ball off the ground, but does so at about 20 MPH slower than Diaz. To see a truly dominant hitter, the chart below shows Jose Ramirez’s numbers for the year.
Ramirez doesn’t hit the ball as hard as Diaz, but he regularly hits at a higher elevation, the primary difference between Ramirez slugging .628 and Diaz slugging .273. If Diaz can adjust his swing path, he could be a truly elite hitter. Even if he can’t, he will likely improve upon these numbers as he’s currently hitting 65.5% of his balls hard and 34.5% on a line.
There is little question that Diaz will ultimately be a great player for the Indians, either as a third baseman, outfielder or switch man, but the question remains what is best for the team and Diaz as a player. For Diaz , he essentially needs two things, to play nearly every day and to work on his angle of elevation. He can do so either in Columbus or in Cleveland, but to do so in Cleveland would likely mean dropping Jackson or demoting Almonte as releasing Martinez wouldn’t free up any playing time. This may be a move that the Indians would be uncomfortable with.
Many players have spent time reworking their swings in the past few seasons including current Columbus Clippers Bradley Zimmer and Richie Shaffer, but it usually takes awhile for the results to come in. For Zimmer, things have unquestionably been turning around as was seen with his .358/.424/.660 batting line during 2017 Spring Training. With that being said, there could be an advantage for Diaz to work on this prospective change with Rouglas Odor in AAA around hitters who have already been through the change.
In the end, this likely makes the most sense, but it shouldn’t be for too long. Those players on the edge of the Indians 25 man, Jackson and Martinez, could ultimately be replaced from the inside with Diaz and Zimmer. Keeping Diaz on the team now could provide an offensive benefit, but the question remains if that benefit would be greater than if he had a little more time in AAA and came back later in the year. The extension of team control would just be a bonus, not the deciding factor.
As for the rest of the Indians offense, there’s little question that some players will hit better including Brandon Guyer, Edwin Encarnacion and Roberto Perez. Adding Jason Kipnis will only help that matter further. As for Martinez, he plays so infrequently as to not be relevant and Jackson will likely be serviceable long enough to last until Diaz comes back or Zimmer gets promoted. By the end of the year, the Indians bench and outfield could be very different than the make-up of today’s roster, but any changes are certain to be positive ones. The current group just has to be good enough to get the Indians on the right path.