In the context of the Winter Meetings–the premier event for player transaction–the most prominent move of every team is often seen as being representative of a team’s off-season as a whole.
That sort of mindset leads to a sort of reaction like–“Really?! Jeff Keppinger is the best we can do!?!” which is a skewed way to analyze the deal to bring the well-traveled infielder to the South Side, but also picks at the primary problem with it. There’s just needs to be some context added to weight it.
First of all, we need the context of the Winter Meetings to justify the money–$12 million over three years. Keppinger is obviously cashing out after a huge rebound 2012 season (.325/.367/.439 in 418 plate apperances), one year after being hastily non-tendered by the Giants for a god-awful 56 game stretch. Keppinger’s performance level improved, but like Angel Pagan, his talent level probably did not experience the seismic shift his results and market value experienced.
Jeff is 32, hasn’t been close to getting through a year of full-time play in two years, and is not even projected as a full-time player by scouts who like his game. Obviously, his usefulness as an option to fill the White Sox chasm at 3rd base or spell Gordon Beckham is clear, but three years is usually the length of a commitment a team gives to a solution, not a stopgap.
The White Sox are paying Keppinger the inflated total sum of $12 million because they were working against the powerful Yankees for Keppinger services, but also a few others, They were also working against fellow utility infielder Maicer Itzuris to Keppinger–an inferior hitter–who had already gotten $10 million over three years, as well as fellow platoon hitter Johnny Gomes, who landed a deal paying him $5 million annually. The Sox may have planned poorly to reach the point where they’re bidding for Jeff Keppinger against the open market, but they did fine in terms of the market itself.
However, the signing has to be placed in the context of the White Sox current roster too, and that is a less kind one. With the way Kevin Youkilis began and ended 2012, struggled with injuries and continued a steep decline in his play, it’s hard to argue that Keppinger is s a downgrade at 3rd base. But he’s certainly not an upgrade or capable of Youkilis’ highest highs. It’s simply too much to ask a below-average fielder used to part-time work, whose offensive performance comes and goes depending on his batted-ball luck to turn in an above-average season.
And the White Sox really need to find a few of those seasons somewhere from their position players. The Tigers underwhelmed last season, yet still finished a tantalizing three wins beyond the White Sox, and have been more active in improving themselves so far. Keppinger does little to close that gap–either on his own, or serving still as a platoon partner for Gordon Beckham or Jack Hannahan–he merely fills the hot corner adequately and inexpensively, while allowing for resources to be focused elsewhere.
Where that might be, is still a mystery. Bringing back A.J. Pierzynski in hopes that he repeats a mid-30’s career-year, or trading away from starter depth present their own problems, but unless Chase Headley was suddenly going on the market, 3rd base was a barren place to look for help, and the Sox were wise to call off the search. With Keppinger, the Sox won’t be hurting themselves, but until the next step is taken, their chances for the AL Central have still gotten worse in sum over the course of the off-season.
That’s not Keppinger’s fault. He’s just a guy who plays three positions, hits singles and beats up left-handers. His skill set could be of great use if placed in the proper light. But if he’s the last significant addition the budget allows, they never will be.
Follow James Fegan on Twitter @JRFegan