Spring Training: Terry Francona

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Cleveland second baseman Jason Kipnis has excellent hand-eye coordination, a compact swing and more pop than you might expect from a guy who is listed at 5-foot-11, 185 pounds. He also lacks an "off" switch, which can be a good or bad thing, depending on the circumstances.

If Kipnis goes 0-for-4 today, his first instinct is to take a few more hacks in the cage and dissect a little more video tomorrow. The longer a slump persists, the harder he's going to work to try to extricate himself. He's just wired that way.

[+] EnlargeJason Giambi
AP Photo/Paul SancyaJason Giambi, 42, has offered a helping hand to younger players in Indians camp this spring.
Everything was rolling along smoothly through June 10, 2012, when Kipnis was hitting .285 with an .805 OPS and generating some buzz as an All-Star candidate. Then he hit the wall. He went two months and 206 plate appearances without a home run, and batted .180 in August before regaining his equilibrium in September. He also hit a mere .215 against left-handed pitching.

Kipnis reflects upon the 2012 season as a challenging yet necessary chapter in his progression. If he can switch to a lighter model bat in the second half this season, or fend off the impulse to take extra batting practice, or come to the park 30 minutes later rather than an hour early in response to a slump, he’s keeping an open mind to those alternatives.

“I hold a very high bar for myself,’’ Kipnis said. “I have high expectations, and it’s always frustrating if you don’t meet them. It s---- when you go through a first half like I did and have success doing something, and then you don’t change much and you don’t have success. You’re wondering, 'What happened?' That’s part of the grind.

“People can tell you how to handle it, but you’re on your own to figure out what works for you. As you get older, you learn there are days when you literally have to get out of the cage, clear your mind and just go up and see the ball and hit the ball. Just simplify it as much as you can.’’

If Kipnis strays from that approach and reverts to his old ways, he could have a little voice of reason whispering in his ear to remind him.

It’s no accident that when Kipnis and third-base prospect Lonnie Chisenhall arrived at spring training, their locker stalls were situated right next to Jason Giambi, an 18-year-veteran who signed a minor league deal with Cleveland three weeks ago. Giambi might not make the Opening Day roster, but manager Terry Francona holds him in high esteem as the type of veteran who can throw an arm around the kids and nurture them through the rough patches. Giambi certainly made an impression in Colorado with Troy Tulowitzki and the other young Rockies players.

Giambi’s early message to Kipnis and Chisenhall: Don’t make the game harder than it already is.

“There’s that fine line you teach the young kids,’’ Giambi said. “I love the fire they have, but let’s not overwork ourselves. Get in the cage and work on some key points instead of saying, 'I’m gonna take 500 swings and be 4-for-4 tomorrow.' It usually doesn't happen like that. It seems like the harder you try in this game, the worse you play.

“I try to keep the younger kids on an even keel so they’re not on that roller-coaster ride where it’s either 'I’m doing great' or 'I’m in the tank.' You’ll see guys who are shot at the end of the season because mentally they’re so exhausted. I want to help them smooth it out a little bit.’’

Giambi’s reputation took a hit in 2004 when it was reported that he had admitted to taking steroids and human growth hormone in testimony before a federal grand jury in the BALCO case. He subsequently apologized to the Yankees and their fans, although he did not directly admit to using PEDs.

I truly feel like it's an honor that he's in our camp. That's how strongly I feel about him.

-- Indians manager Terry
Francona on Giambi
The transgression tarnished Giambi in the public eye, but it didn't prevent him from finding jobs with Oakland and Colorado in recent years even as his power began to wane. In baseball circles, Giambi remains a popular teammate and clubhouse sage. That helps explain why he just turned 42 years old and he’s still fighting for a spot in Cleveland’s camp -- and the Rockies considered him strongly as a managerial candidate before hiring Walt Weiss in November.

Francona recently said of Giambi, “I truly feel like it's an honor that he's in our camp. That's how strongly I feel about him.’’ Reading between the lines, you get the distinct impression that Francona would love to have Giambi on his Opening Day roster, even though Giambi rarely plays in the field now and has only so many at-bats available with Mark Reynolds as Cleveland’s primary designated hitter.

Francona said Giambi can fill an important role in helping the young Cleveland players provided he still has something to add between the lines. The Mariners were thinking along the same lines when they signed 40-year-old Raul Ibanez to a one-year deal in December. He's playing the same mentoring role for Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak that Giambi hopes to fill for Kipnis and Chisenhall.

“The fine line is, guys have to be able to contribute to the team,’’ Francona said. “When they can contribute to the team in some capacity, what they bring along with it is invaluable. Those two guys are off the charts.’’

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