After a few weeks of speculation, the Tampa Bay Rays are expected to sign infielder Jeff Keppinger. The Rays will be his sixth major-league organization, having spent parts of seven seasons with the New York Mets, Kansas City Royals, Cincinnati Reds, Houston Astros, and San Francisco Giants. He is a .281/.332/.388 hitter in 2,287 career plate appearances.
Keppinger had his best full season in 2010, hitting .288/.351/.393 in 137 games for the Astros. He remained the team’s starting second baseman in 2011 before being traded in mid-July to the San Francisco Giants. At the time of the trade, he was hitting .307 with a .755 OPS, but hit just .255 with a .285 on-base percentage in 56 games for the Giants.
Without much power (.108 career Isolated Power) or much of a walk rate (6.8%), the bulk of Keppinger’s value resides in his ability to make contact. His career contact rate is 93% and has struck out less than he has walked (6.2% strikeout rate). In fact, he has whiffed on just 2.8% of pitches he has seen in the big leagues.
Last week, I said new Ray Will Rhymes was similar to Ryan Theriot – another reported target of the Rays. The same can be said for Keppinger, but even more so. In addition to sharing contact related skills, Keppinger also bats from the right side and is adept at hitting versus left-handed pitching. In 660 career plate appearances versus southpaws, he has hit .324/.371/.481.
While Keppinger will likely occupy the roster spot held by Elliot Johnson in 2011, his signing may have a bigger effect on Matt Joyce. The left-handed hitting Joyce struggled against lefties last year, striking out in 31 of his 101 plate appearances versus left-handed pitching. For his career, he has reached base just 28% versus lefties compared to a .357 OBP against righties. Although Keppinger plays the infield, he could enter into an unnatural platoon with Joyce. Unter this scenario Ben Zobrist would move from second base to right field against left-handers with Keppinger and Sean Rodriguez as middle infielders. This would prohibit Joyce from becoming an everyday player in 2012, but strengthens the lineup against left-handed pitchers and still gives Joyce about 70% of the playing time.
Keppinger has rated as a below-average fielder for most of his career. The bulk of that playing time has come at second base, but he has some experience at shortstop and third base along with limited time at first base and corner outfield. He’ll likely roam the diamond in spring training, and could benefit defensively from being a part-time player as well as the creative positioning employed by the Rays’ coaching staff.
This offseason, Tampa Bay appeared to have a target on a contact-hitting, right-handed, middle infielder with past success against left-handed pitching. Keppinger is certainly that. Although he may not be the dynamic defender Rays’ fans are used to seeing, his limited time in the field should shield the team from some of the negative plays his previous employers may have endured. And on a team that will likely play left-handed sluggers Carlos Pena and Luke Scott on an everyday basis, Keppinger adds value on days when Joe Maddon needs to stack the lineup with right-handers to combat the platoon split.