In what could serve as a microcosm of the Cubs’ offseason, their biggest move — in terms of name recognition, anyway — came when they brought in an aging veteran on a minor-league deal. Northbrook native Jason Kipnis is a few years removed from his prime, but he offers the potential for both leadership and a steady hand at second base. Though many have remained hopeful for a youth movement in the form of Nico Hoerner, the Cubs have maintained the pursuit of experience and may want their top prospect to build more of his own in the minors.
Enter Kipnis, who’s got a good shot at breaking camp as at least the 26th man on the roster, if not the starter at second. That will require a return to the form of 2016 and earlier, since Kipnis has posted just a .708 OPS with an 85 wRC+ over the last three seasons. Even when he missed nearly half of the 2017 season, however, he still put up half a win above replacement. Perhaps joining the team he cheered for as a kid will foster a rebirth.
“It’s a little hard right now coming in and being the new guy and being lost and not knowing where to go,” Kipnis told the media from his locker at Sloan Park. “But it’ll be fun, it’s exciting. It’s out of the comfort zone again and that’s actually what you want right now, to be uncomfortable and — I don’t know — I miss this feeling a little bit, so it’ll be good.”
The longtime Indians star joked about avoiding all the 2016 World Series memorabilia, which is present because the Cubs beat Kipnis and his old team that year. People forget that. More than just fear of his own bad memories, the Glenbrook North alum is simply focused on the present and future with a team that he felt was the best fit for him overall.
“Once the offseason kinda played out the way it did, I started weighing the options and seeing which boxes to check with which team, and this one checked the most for me,” Kipnis explained. “So by the time I made the decision, it really wasn’t that hard for me.”
Kipnis on joining the club that kept him from winning a ring in Cleveland. pic.twitter.com/hp9To6y9DO
— Gordon Wittenmyer (@GDubMLB) February 15, 2020
Without specifically naming each of the boxes in question, he made it evident that joining a competitive team was paramount. There’s also the matter of having a legitimate opportunity to crack the roster, which you have to think the Cubs offered him with as much certainty as possible given the situation.
“I’m about to be 33 and apparently in this game that’s very old, so I have to really weigh in winning,” Kipnis said. “And this was definitely one of the better teams, and I looked at the rosters and I already knew what roster these guys had. I was friends with [Anthony] Rizzo, I texted and called him and asked him kinda what happened last year, because I looked at the rosters, I looked at St. Louis’s, I look at all that.
“And I’m like, ‘I still would take your guys’ roster.’ And we started talking about it and he agreed, said the same thing, and I think you want to weigh winning. You don’t want to go somewhere that’s in a rebuild, not at this stage of my career, but I think all the boxes we could check in terms of playing time and winning.”
Based on what we know about the Cubs’ emphasis on mental attitude and clubhouse chemistry, it feels as though Kipnis was brought in as more than just a means by which to push some of the younger guys in camp. Similarly, he didn’t show up based simply on the roster and the potential to maybe hold down the end of the bench. Though second base figures to be one of the more intriguing position battles in Mesa, it feels like Kipnis has a slight advantage heading into it.
It doesn’t hurt that he’s already got some friends on and around the team, whether it’s Rizzo or some of the other guys he’s played with and against over the years. That extends to the coaching staff, notably former Indians clubhouse favorite Mike Napoli, who is part of manager Davis Ross’s staff as quality assurance coach. From the sound of it, though, Kipnis is avoiding his former teammate just like the banners from 2016.
“I haven’t seen him, I haven’t seen that dumb beard anywhere yet.”