White Sox's hunt for infield adequacy leads to Jeff Keppinger

This is now considered friendly fire. - Jerry Lai/USA TODAY Sports

Rick Hahn gets the best-available financial fit, if not the best-available talent, at third base on the open market.

In a vacuum, signing Jeff Keppinger is pretty much the definition of settling.

He's never held down a starting job for an extended run, especially at third. Until his personal-best performance with the Rays in 2012, he spent most of his erratic career bouncing around infield positions, sometimes an asset, other times a liability, and neither for very long.

But time was entirely on his side this winter. He hit .325/.367/.439 for Tampa Bay, which put him near the top of a creaky heap of flawed third basemen at a time when numerous teams needed one. Add the two elements together, and that's how a through-and-through utility player like Keppinger has his choice of starting jobs.

Without anything resembling leverage, the Sox could have done worse. His annual salary is fair even if he strongly regresses toward his ordinary history. The years are a problem, but an unavoidable one for his services. Hell, Randy Choate -- a 37-year-old LOOGY who has been released twice and a free agent three times since 2005 -- signed a three-year deal for $7.5 million after throwing 38 innings over 80 appearances last season.

In this money-rich, talent-thin environment, Keppinger's contract passes the smell test. We couldn't say that about Scott Linebrink, because Linebrink said the Sox were only the team to offer him a fourth year. We couldn't say that about Mark Teahen, because the Sox handed him a three-year deal when the Kansas City Royals didn't see the point in giving him one more try. The Sox committed to those players in the midst of their drop-offs; Keppinger has never played better. Small victories.

"It's not an abysmal deal on its face" fails to inspire, but this isn't the kind of move to judge on its own. At least it shouldn't be. If it is, then the Sox are in trouble.

Star-divide

Before the signing, the existing White Sox lineup sported three offensive voids -- third base, second base and catcher (you could also say shortstop, but Alexei Ramirez isn't going anywhere, so that's moot). As imbalanced as the third base market is, there doesn't appear to be a more cost-effective fit at catcher, unless A.J. Pierzynski has turned off everybody. Investing in second base didn't make a whole lot of sense, either, because if Gordon Beckham flatlines another season, Carlos Sanchez is there to press him.

Unless you're shopping for a center fielder -- and this time the Sox don't need one -- it's not a good year to solve problems through free agency. Going with Keppinger is an attempt to sidestep that pitfall as much as possible, spending a forgivable amount of money for a decent shot at adequacy on the position furthest from it.

At the very least, having a credible major leaguer at third base should liberate the front office for more creativity as the trade market loosens up. Without a giant question mark casting a pall over the proceedings, Rick Hahn can shop his trading chits for the best available deal, and it doesn't even have to be ready for the majors now, because the Sox need cheap talent just as much as they need a left-handed bat. At least Hahn can negotiate while saying he can field a lineup, and with a straight face. Shopping for a car is considerably easier when the one you have runs.

Star-divide

There isn't nearly as much to say about Keppinger's game. Jeff Sullivan said it best: He singles until he gets tired of singling. He's contact-oriented, he plays passable defense, he's a mediocre baserunner, he's better against lefties than righties, and it can fall apart on him for stretches if his luck turns. Or if he suffers another weird injury. He's not complicated. He's not spectacular.

The Sox don't need a high ceiling from him -- they need a high floor. Even with Kevin Youkilis' contributions, White Sox third basemen owned the lowest OPS in the league (.600; the Angels were 13th ... at .664!).

Keppinger probably won't reproduce his 2012 line. But even if he's able to regress to his more normal production, it stands a chance of helping. Look at his last three years, over which he was excellent for Tampa, awful for San Francisco, and OK for Houston.

Weighing his output against White Sox third basemen since 2010, he still comes out comfortably ahead:

  • Keppinger, 2010-2012: .288/.337/.399
  • Sox 3Bs, 2010-2012: .234/.301/.343

Of course, because Keppinger is now a White Sox third baseman, there's a good chance his essence is devoured by the same invisible monster that fell Joe Crede, and each one of his successors. Even if he doesn't work out as planned, the Sox can still get out from under it. Hell, Kenny Williams traded the shell of Teahen without paying any of his salary, and they used his return to solve the third base problem at a later date, which is a neat trick.

And Brent Morel has to come out of this slightly encouraged, because Keppinger is not an immovable object, whether it's because he can be outperformed, or because he can shift to second if Beckham is a lost cause. Morel can still play his way into the picture if his back allows him, but his disc problems aren't holding the Sox hostage, either.

Basically, there are a lot of interesting implications from this signing, and it's more interesting than the impact Keppinger will likely make on the 2013 White Sox. I'm guessing he's the frontrunner to bat second considering his skill set, but we'll get a sneak peek at his table-setting abilities before spring training arrives.

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