This is the second half of a dialogue between myself and my friend Tyler Chirdon. In the first half, we tried to get a handle on where second base had been in the past half decade. In this half, we try to figure out the options at second base and how they might influence each other. Again, this is all clipped from email conversations and the tremendous length reflects the nature of the conversation (this isn't to excuse the length which is, obviously, inexcusable).
AH: You pretty much sealed my fate when we each started drawing straws. You wanted Phelps, so I got Kipnis. I knew I was going to come down hard on the side of some line in the sand -- I was either going to be the guy on record that Phelps wasn't someone to count on (declining average, lack of real plate discipline) or the guy on record that Jason Kipnis is special in ways we haven't even defined yet. So let's get to it.
If he qualified, Jason Kipnis would lead the Eastern League in batting average and rank second and sixth in on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, respectively. 53 of his 152 hits have been for extra bases. If Nick Weglarz didn't exist, Kipnis could muster a statistical argument as the Indians best power prospect.
Let me diverge to point out that Weglarz' season, which is apparently over, featured 41 of 89 hits for extra bases, at AA and AAA. Good lord, Canada. Don't spoil us. To be fair, Weglarz exhibits a talent for crushing the ball that is, to be honest, a little over the top.
Of course, Nick Weglarz plays left field at a less than ideal level. Kipnis plays second base, apparently adequately. Kipnis has hit 15 homeruns this year and, if I've got my counts right, that's fourth in the entire system behind McBride (two years older than Kipnis), Goedert (two years older than Kipnis), and Chisenhall (22 and a prospect better than even Kipnis) and tied with Jared Head (27 and irrelevant).
All this in his first year of professional baseball. I could go for days on Jason Kipnis-he's got power in a system that lacks power, he has the ability to put bat to ball, and he gets on base (.395 on the year). And, oh yeah, he plays the position that the Cleveland Indians have totally failed to fill over the last five years. So, what the hey, Jason Kipnis ought to be the starting baseman in 2011, from day one.
That boy is cold as a puppy's nose.
TC: Well, you know, this isn’t really going to be a true point-counterpoint. Ninja Ski Ops! The guy can hit. But what the hell, let me trundle through my Minor Complaint Drawer and see if I find anything interesting.
Hmm. minorleaguesplits.com says Kipnis has been on the lucky side against left-handed pitching. Not that it means much, since his luck-adjusted numbers themselves aren’t bad, but it’s something to keep an eye on going forward. He’s not especially young -- not old, mind you, but old enough that we shouldn’t overheat our prospect ExciteBikes because he’s man-handled the Eastern League. He’s a bat-first guy, and an advanced prospect. Advanced prospects are SUPPOSED to man-handle the Eastern League. And, yes, thank you, I’d love some barbecue sauce to put on these nits I’ve picked.
Kipnis is also bumping up against my Andy Marte Prospect-Enthusiasm Rev Limiter -- that would be minor league home runs. Yeah, all things being equal, 15 (Kipnis) is better than 8 (Phelps), but unless you’ve got each of those dingers hit-charted, you don’t know that all things are equal. Ultimately, what I see are two guys who are slugging over 500 in 200+ ABs at their present level. And one of those guys is at a higher level.
AH: You're right that there's nothing to nitpick here and that, at the same time, his prospect profile (bat-first college guy) is one that makes it nearly impossible for him to truly make his ascendancy obvious. I mean, what would he have to do between A+/AA to really clarify his status? I'm thinking an OPS over, what, 1100? It's not realistic for a guy like him to have been shoved to AAA already, is it?
What I'm saying is, there's nothing wrong about the way Kipnis has performed or how the Indians have been handled. Despite that, the facts of the situation are inherently murky. Or, maybe I've become gunshy about all prospects, Pavlovian'd into oblivion by Adam Miller's fistula.
TC: Was it realistic for Cord Phelps to be shoved to AAA already? I feel a little sheepish, waxing enthusiastic about Cord Phelps as I’m about to do. For a high-round draft pick, he didn’t get a very impressive signing bonus, a fact which I actually used as my lead into a piece in the Annual. Specifically, I opened that article, a primer on the Indians’ most significant amateur acquisitions of 2008, by pointing out that, based on his signing bonus, Cord Phelps wasn’t a significant amateur acquisition. It was as if to say, yeah, he’ll under-perform your expectations for a third-rounder, but don’t sweat it; we saved our money for more promising players like, um, Tim Fedroff, evidently.
And an awkward silence settles on the room as Cord Phelps dedicates 2010 to throttling the competition. I like to imagine that, instead of crossing himself after he gets a hit a hit, Phelps faces Toledo and gives me the finger.
AH: That 2008 draft has changed pretty rapidly in terms of perception. The big schoolboy Texas arm we were all crazy for, Trey Haley, is pretty much totally off the rails, though not without time to find his way. Zach Putnam, who was supposed to be some kind of relief ace by now, just irritates me at this point. I feel similarly about Fedroff, Tice, Eric Berger and Donnie Webb. However, buried in the draft was T.J. House and then, at the top, there was the pick that was immediately and nearly simultaneously questioned and vindicated, Lonnie Chisenhall. Finally, there was Phelps, a player we all summarily ignored (or at least I did) and he's all the sudden hyper-relevant. It's repeated often but there is no way we could know less about the players coming through the amateur draft.
TC: For that matter, I seem to recall most everyone saying Kipnis was an undersized tweener whose game wouldn’t translate well to wood bats. What a splendid time-sink draft-day reactions are. Here’s your menu, Mr. Law; tonight’s special is roast crow in snark chutney.
What were we talking about? Oh, right. Perch Plods. I’ll fulfill my enlightened-Internet-era baseball fan obligations and tell you that Cord Phelps’s 2010 success has that "eau d’BA/bip" fragrance about it. And seeing as he’ll be 24 at the end of the year, he’s really just accelerating himself to an age-appropriate level. And he really hasn’t hit all that many home runs. And that it’s kind of suspicious that his stats improved when he was promoted to AAA. And that...oh, put a sock in it, will you?
I could try to refute these complaints on their own merits, but to do so would sacrifice the narrative thread: Cord Phelps worked. We went out and got that quintessentially Mirabellian pick, the switch-hitting NCAA upper-classman with eyebrow-raising aluminum stats, and we plugged him in at the Position Where Indians Prospects Go To Die, and instead of following the path to under-achievement, well-worn by his predecessors, he took the road less traveled by and beat the hell out of the ball. < / classicpoetrymisinterpretation >
AH: That poem is one of the all time litmus tests for pretension-if you get the title right (The Road Not Taken) and you loudly explain that it's not an optimistic ode to being one's self, you're probably a pretentious fathead. So, you're me.
It’s going to take somebody smarter than me to figure out the real weakness in Phelps’s stat-sheet. These aren’t Huntington Park numbers -- he actually hits better away. The switch-hitting thing looks legit, because his left-right split is modest. And he’s showing some good-looking discipline, too, meaning that his offensive game isn’t married to his contact rate. Maybe there’s something about the numbers that doesn’t translate to the big leagues, but the 2010 crew has disabused me of the notion that I know anything about projecting AAA stats.
So instead I’ll try to take Cord Phelps’s performance for what it’s worth: The man has catapulted himself into relevance. You cannot post a triple-slash line of 328/402/520 in AAA as a 23-year-old who plays a good second base and be irrelevant. Or maybe I’ll put it this way: He’s already better than Adam Kennedy was at 23. And he’s, what, about four months older than Jason Kipnis? Am I having a Shatner in "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" moment here? There’s a damn good prospect out there and I’m the only one who can see it!
AH: I want to be a hard-liner on this, as I outlined in the argument for Kipnis. I did my best stump speech but, really, what's the statiscal difference between these two guys? Very little. Kipnis, by getting out of the gate early, never did anything to lower my opinion of him. Perhaps more importantly, scouts tend to say nice things about Kipnis while struggling to remember who, exactly, Cord Phelps is. Still, I wonder, like you do, if we're all missing the forest for the trees. Phelps was basically shoved up the system because the rampaging Kipnis, my wholly imagined l'enfant terrible of the Eastern League, demanded second base all to himself. Cord, either totally unimpressed or totally unaware, simply moved up to AAA and continued to perform on a triple-slash level that was essentially the equal of Young Master Kipnis. Could it be that the man we're coronating as the next King of Keystone is a fine candidate but, then again, so is the canny peasant whose fields never fall fallow?
Living up to the pretentious tag, aren't I? If you really want to kneecap Cord and sell Kipnis, you look at the power counting numbers and you give Phelps the Goedert treatment. It's fun that Cord turned into a better player at AAA, that he transformed from a sort of corny Jose Reyes into David Wright on the two-bag, but, well, it just doesn't seem believable. So, we wait and hope for Phelps not to fail while expecting him to do just that.
TC: My point exactly. There’s a difference between informed pessimism and willfull blindness, and although it’s perfectly reasonable to look at Cord’s game and temper your expectations because his production is a little contact-dependent, that downward adjustment doesn’t turn a terrific season into a meaningless one. Are we so wrapped up in our top-ten list security blankets that we can’t appreciate a here-to-fore unnoticed middle-infielder who’s tattooing the highest level of minor league pitching?
Or, worse yet, are we so intently focused on Kevin Goldstein’s Twitter feed that we ignore the middle infielder who’s actually producing in the majors? Segue to Jason Donald!
I have less to say about Donald in general, simply because he’s so much more a known quantity. Most relevant to our conversation here, I think, is that his age-23 season at AA wasn’t terribly dissimilar from N.S.O. Kipnis’s. (I don’t see that Donald ever had a 200+ at-bat run in AAA quite like Phelps’s 2010.) Are we looking two years into the future of Jason Kipnis with Donald? And if we are, is that still a reason to be excited; i.e., is Donald still somebody for whom we have high hopes?
AH: We unpack Donald in the typical way. First, it was his third (second if you don't count short-season) professional season when he got hot and bothered in Reading. As Jay pointed out at some point, the first professional season argument is a good one to ignore except maybe in exactly this situation. Kipnis deserves some credit for hitting the ground running and making the toughest transition in the minors (High-A to AA) with aplomb, as a true first year player.
Secondly with Donald, and this might get weird for a second, yes Donald is probably a likely outcome for Kipnis. Hell, he's a 75th percentile outcome: it will be a success if Kipnis actually makes the majors and hits at the level JD has so far. At the same time, the promise of prospects is just that: promise. So, even if Kipnis is as likely as not to look a lot like Donald in a Cleveland uniform, well, he hasn't yet. We know Donald is Donald and there's not a big reason to think he's going to turn into an all-star or something. Now, compare that to Kipnis. We know Kipnis might be Donald but there are still big reasons that he could turn into an all-star or something. Donald already did away with his big reasons to believe: he got old, he got hurt, he made the majors and showed his warts.
Does that carry any water?
TC: Donald did away with his reasons to believe ... that he would be an All-Star? Sounds right. But one of the benefits of that merciless prelude we unloaded on our readers is that it demonstrated just how disastrous second base has been for this team of late.
AH: Fair enough.
TC: Taking things in context, thank heaven for Jason Donald and his 700 OPS. Maybe the new Ben Francisco is a multi-position infielder. Ideal, no. Better than late-period Valbuena, yes. Shoot, he may be straight-up better than the actual Ben Francisco.
AH: Hey, by the by, Kipnis and Phelps are twenty-three years old and hanging around Akron and Columbus. Jason Donald was twenty-three in Reading, playing AA ball well. Luis Valbuena? He hit .304/.381/.483 in AA as a twenty-two year old. And, oh yeah, when he was twenty-three he hit .250/.298/.416 in the majors, as well as OPSing 975 in AAA. Do we really believe what we're all parroting these days, that this guy is not salvageable as a major league regular? That we'll be lucky if he's utility?
TC: We believe that he's up to his thick neck in bad juju. FanGraphs doesn't think he's even being pitched all that differently than he has in years past. I don't cotton to sports psychology. I think there's something physically wrong with Luis -- with his eyesight, with his hands or feet, with his nervous system, with his SOMETHING -- that's slowing him down juuuuust enough to render major league pitching inscrutable to him. Or, who knows, maybe he's off the juice. How else do you explain a guy who can catch up to fastballs one year and not the next?
AH: Well, you know my answer. God hates second base in Cleveland, so God hates Luis. Less acerbically, perhaps Cleveland has absolutely cornered the market on pure AAAA players. LaPorta, Marte and Valbuena are all straight-up International League Hall of Famers as young men. This isn’t Mike Hessman-these are guys who, as young men, exhibited huge talent but talent that, pessimistically, consistently evaporates somewhere between Huntington and Progressive.
And your move, Andrew. Looks like they're putting up the chairs and counting the money. Care to play us out?
AH: I’m exhausted. It’s not clear that we’ve actually illuminated the situation at all. Instead, we’ve practiced being "snappy" writers-at this rate, we'll soon be able to get a job at 'zines that no longer exist! Honestly, though, I think things will hold exactly where they are. Donald will be the second basemen in the spring, Kipnis will be asked to repeat the trick at AAA (and Columbus will be great, again), and Phelps and Valbuena will be allowed to battle for utility spots once the soul of Jayson Nix has ascended. My gut says there’s no trade value in anyone but Kipnis and Kipnis ain't moving