One of the most sparse positions on baseball's free agent market just became even thinner, much to the delight of the White Sox.
The Sox signed infielder Jeff Keppinger to a three-year, $12-million contract Monday to address their No. 1 need – a third baseman. Keppinger will make $3.5 million in 2013, $4 million in 2014 and $4.5 million in 2015.
Keppinger is penciled in as the Sox’s Opening Day third baseman, and his versatility affords general manager Rick Hahn to stay active in free agency while giving manager Robin Ventura flexibility with his lineup. Keppinger said he hadn’t discussed where he would play with the Sox but that it doesn’t matter given his history of playing different positions during his career. He’s capable of playing any infield position and should push second baseman Gordon Beckham, who has yet to reach his potential.
“He certainly, at this time, fills a hole for us, but he has the flexibility and the versatility to allow us to be creative with some other options as the offseason unfolds and into the next couple of seasons,” Hahn said.
Keppinger is recovering from a broken right leg that required surgery in November but is expected to be ready for spring training. The freak accident – wearing flip flops, he slipped down stairs at his home and couldn’t catch himself before landing awkwardly – delayed his free agent process while interested teams awaited his medical records and post-op updates. Keppinger plans to come out of his walking boot today and will begin rehabbing his leg.
Keppinger’s arrival ends any thoughts of pursuing free agent Kevin Youkilis for third base. Youkilis was unlikely to return even if Keppinger signed elsewhere since he’s too expensive for the Sox. That leaves Ventura and the Sox with a hole in the No. 2 spot in the lineup, but don’t rule out Keppinger as a solid option.
“He puts the ball in play a lot and has the ability to do the little things to help you win,” Hahn said. “I’ll leave it to Robin as to how he wants to do the lineup based on who we ultimately have come Opening Day. But I do think Jeff certainly has the potential to fill in that [No. 2 hitter] spot.”
Keppinger, 32, hit .325 with a .367 on-base percentage and struck out only 31 times in 115 games with Tampa Bay last season. During his eight big league seasons, Keppinger has never struck out more than 36 times in a single year. He’s also one of only three active players (along with the Angels’ Albert Pujols and Red Sox’s Dustin Pedroia) with more extra-base hits and walks than strikeouts.
“I hit a lot of two-hole when I was in Houston and San Francisco,” Keppinger said. “Last year with the Rays, I bounced around. [Rays manager] Joe Maddon comes up with lineups all over the place, so it doesn’t really matter where I hit in the lineup. … Hitting’s really fun for me and hitting in the two-hole, I like the challenges.”
While the Sox filled one of their biggest offseason needs by signing Keppinger, Hahn is still talking to other clubs and some free agents about a potential fit. His plans didn’t change after the Kansas City Royals’ aggressive trade with the Tampa Bay Rays on Sunday.
Hahn knew the Royals were looking to acquire starting pitching and was not surprised by the deal. It doesn’t make the Sox more inclined to move a starting pitcher, one of their biggest strengths, though they are still exploring their options. If a trade is presented that is too good to pass up and makes the organization better, Hahn said they’ll make a deal.
“Kansas City has played us tough the past several years,” Hahn said. “We’re certainly not sleeping on them and it certainly should make the AL Central race more interesting as we go through next summer.”
• Meghan Montemurro covers the White Sox and Cubs for Shaw Media. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.