September 23, 2014

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Scott Petrak: Signing young players like Jason Kipnis to long-term contracts proves Indians taking winning seriously

Cleveland Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis smiles during an exhibition baseball game in Goodyear, Ariz. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Cleveland Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis smiles during an exhibition baseball game in Goodyear, Ariz. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

CLEVELAND — The first Indians home win of the season came early Friday morning.

Before the 133-minute rain delay that included a half-hour of bright sunshine. Before the offense erupted for seven runs in its last three at-bats. Before starting pitcher Danny Salazar fought through 5⅔ innings and the bullpen slammed the door.

Before the 7-2 victory over the Twins.

While fans slept before the marathon that is the annual rain-delayed home opener, the Indians announced All-Star second baseman Jason Kipnis had signed a six-year, $52.5 million contract. It’s always a good day when a team can lock down its best player. That it coincided with the home opener only increased the buzz that was eventually dulled by the awful weather.

Kipnis’ long-term deal followed those signed this spring by outfielder Michael Brantley (four years, $25 million) and catcher Yan Gomes (six years, $23 million). They don’t count as a three-game win streak in the standings, but certainly set a positive tone at the outset of a long season.

“Bro, I think it’s so awesome,” first baseman Nick Swisher said, interrupting a reporter’s question. “I think it’s so amazing.

“Not only in the locker room does it make everything better, but even for the fan base. This is not a one-and-done-type organization anymore. Guys are going to be here for a long time. That really gives the fan base something to wrap their arms around. People are starting to realize that this team will spend money. I think that’s a great thing. They’re all the right moves.”

The Indians entered the season with the lowest payroll in the AL Central and ranked 26th of 30 major league teams. But the $82.5 million payroll was Cleveland’s largest in 13 years.

The organization, manager Terry Francona and the players believe the big league contracts that lock up their best young players through their arbitration years and into free agency — when they’d be able to leave for bigger markets and bigger bucks — are convincing evidence owner Paul Dolan is willing to spend to build on last year’s trip to the playoffs and establish a string of success.

For too many fans, it’s not enough. The Dolans will always be viewed as cheap. The trades of Cy Young winners CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee will never be forgotten, much less forgiven.

But it’s time those fans realize the Indians of 2014 aren’t the same organization of shoestring budgets and five straight non-winning seasons from 2008-12.

Even if the club recently walked away from a possible extension with ace Justin Masterson, who’s in the final year of his contract.

The Indians made the first giant step toward respectability in the 2013 offseason when they signed Swisher and center fielder Michael Bourn as expensive free agents. The trip to the wild-card game in October was the reward, and the organization is trying desperately to maintain that momentum.

So the Indians dusted off the playbook former general manager John Hart used to jump-start the glory years of the 1990s. Brantley, Gomes and Kipnis aren’t Manny Ramirez, Sandy Alomar and Carlos Baerga, but the only chance the small-market Indians have of consistent contention is overpaying their talent early with the promise of overperformance later.

General manager Chris Antonetti proudly pointed out the Indians have 16 players under control of the team — either contract or arbitration-eligible — through the 2016 season.

Kipnis is as good a bet as the Indians can make. He can hit for average, hit for power, steal a base and he’s developed into an above-average defender despite making a late switch from outfield to second base. He was an All-Star for the first time last season and finished the year hitting .284 with 86 runs, 84 RBIs, 17 homers, 30 steals and 36 doubles.

“He’s emerged as one of the best second basemen in baseball,” Antonetti said. “He has a unique combination of power and speed, which has made him one of the best players at his position and in the American League.”

He also embodies the blue-collar spirit Cleveland fans love to embrace. He runs hard to first base, likes to dive headfirst and never finishes a game with a clean uniform.

But the $52.5 million contract could make it hard for the “Dirtbag” nickname to continue. “Moneybags” seems more appropriate.

“That doesn’t change at all,” Gomes said. “He’s an all-out kind of guy. He’s one of our leaders. Even though he’s young, you look up to him.”

Francona referred to an at-bat in the ninth inning of a come-from-behind win Wednesday in Oakland as the epitome of Kipnis. The No. 3 hitter didn’t blink when Francona asked him to bunt. When he didn’t get one down, he stayed alive long enough to pull a grounder to the right side and beat out the double play. He then stole second and scored in the winning three-run rally.

“That’s the way Kip plays,” Francona said. “You see some guys get mad because you ask them to bunt, they strike out and we lose.”

The Indians identified Kipnis’ bright future early. He was drafted in the second round (63rd overall) in 2009, and the team and Kipnis’ agent started discussing an extension a couple of springs ago. They finally reached an agreement three games into this season.

“It’s an amazing feeling to get something done,” said Kipnis, who went 0-for-3 with a walk. “I’ve wanted to stay here, I’m excited about being here. I’m excited to be a part of the core that’s coming back.

“When I got drafted here, the organization was in a rut. I wanted to be a part of the transformation of the organization, be a part of a group of players that could get this going in the right direction. Signing back here, I wanted to see us and Brantley and Gomes turn Cleveland around. We want to finish the job.”

Dolan and Antonetti still have work to do to improve and stabilize the roster. An extension with Masterson would provide the perfect anchor to the rotation and appease a few more fans.

But they’re off to a good start.

Just like the Tribe’s season.

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @scottpetrak.

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