Have the Rays Found Their Man at Shortstop?

The signing of Jeff Keppinger could settle things at shortstop for the 2012 season and beyond. His numbers at the plate and in the field reveal a much more complete player than the other three candidates.

I'm not big on making predictions. It eventually leaves you up for a Nelson Muntz-type backlash, so I'll leave that to Vegas oddsmakers and the plethora of supposed pundits out there on television and radio and every other Johnny-come-lately website.

But in the case of Jeff Keppinger, I will go out on a limb. And this limb has support from some very solid foundation.

Keppinger will be the starting shortstop for the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2012 campaign. And possibly for the next two to three years.

While he's played primarily at second base over the last two seasons – 164 games with the Houston Astros and 55 games with the San Francisco Giants, his natural position is shortstop, where he was named as a two-time college All-American during his three-year career at the University of Georgia.

More importantly, the 31-year-old Florida native brings discipline to the plate, consistency on the field and a veteran presence in the clubhouse. Something the three other candidates – Reid Brignac, Elliott Johnson and Sean Rodriguez – lack.

The numbers don't just lie in this case; they scream clearly.

Over the course of seven Major League seasons, Keppinger has struck out only 142 times in 2,287 career plate appearances, averaging the second most plate appearances per strikeout (16.1) among active players (min. 2,000 PA) behind Juan Pierre.

"I just learned early on as a kid to put the barrel on the ball," Keppinger said. "I was taught to practice the little things and to have a good approach at the plate. I've never tried to be a home run hitter. I'll leave that up to the other guys. I just think getting on base and creating opportunities is a good thing."

For perspective, Brignac has 165 strikeouts in 694 plate appearances (in four seasons), Rodriguez has 246 in 1,030 plate appearances (in four seasons) and Johnson has 60 in 200 (in two seasons). Combined, the three have struck out 471 times in 1,924 times at the plate, which results in a strikeout every 4.09 plate appearance.

Keppinger's plate discipline is huge for an organization built and primed on the numbers.

"He is a tough out, especially against left-handers, and his contact skills bring a useful dimension to our roster," said Executive Vice President, Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman.

The right-handed hitter has a career .281 batting average, .332 on-base percentage and .388 slugging percentage over seven seasons with the New York Mets (2004), Kansas City Royals (2006), Cincinnati Reds (2007-08), Astros (2009-11) and Giants (2011). Against left-handed pitchers, he owns a career .324 batting average, .371 on-base percentage and .481 slugging percentage.

With seven players already on the roster who have the potential to hit 20 or more home runs, including Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena, B.J. Upton, Desmond Jennings, Matt Joyce, Ben Zobrist and Luke Scott, this type of approach and production could equate to a record number of runs for the Rays, who set the organization mark in 2009 with 803 runs.

Rays manager Joe Maddon is a stickler for plate discipline and Keppinger fits the Maddon Way in more ways than one, including playing in the field wherever is necessary.

"I'm up for anything," Keppinger said in a conference call on Friday. "I just go out there and I do what I can. They can put me anywhere they want. I've played pretty much everywhere in my career so far, except catcher (and pitcher). When I was talking with (Maddon), he said nothing's really set yet, so we'll see what the matchups are like. I just want to help the ball club win."

Keppinger, who grew up in Miami before attending Parkview High School in Georgia, even joked about catching, which he did in high school a bit.

"If I gotta do it in the pits, I'll do whatever (Maddon) needs," said Keppinger, who was originally selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 2001 June Draft.

But the Rays have quality starters in place at every other position besides shortstop and Keppinger could just provide the overall potential to avoid piecing together miracles like Maddon had to do last year.

The numbers in the field may reveal Keppinger's versatility – 280 games at second, 178 at short, 102 at third, eight at first and 10 in all three outfield positions, his success at shortstop suggest Friedman and Maddon may have found their man at the position.

"He's better than most people think," an MLB national scout told me. "He'll make the routines. Solid fundamentally. Won't hurt you. Almost never."

In fact, Keppinger has made just 11 errors in 639 chances at the position. The other three candidates have combined for 26 errors in 948 chances.

"We value his defensive versatility, which will allow him to make an impact in many different ways," Friedman said. "Jeff is a good player who fits our club well."

Keppinger is a quality baseball player who has taken a circuitous route similar in ways to Carlos Pena, who had spent six seasons with four other organizations before joining the Rays and becoming a star. Keppinger has been consistent over his seven seasons after breaking in with the New York Mets in 2004 and then re-emerging with the Kansas City Royals in 2006 after a short stint in the Minors due to a knee injury.

Keppinger, 31, split the 2011 season between the Houston Astros and San Francisco Giants, batting .277 (105-for-379) overall. After batting .288 (148-for-514) in the 2010 season with the Astros, he hit .307 (50-for-163) in 43 games with Houston before being traded to the Giants on July 19 and batting .255 (55-for-216) in 56 games to end the year.

So, the numbers suggest Keppinger fits the Maddon Way, but the numbers also reveal Keppinger could fit the mold similar to a Jason Bartlett, who started 379 games at shortstop and batted .288 over three seasons with the Rays.

Based in St. Petersburg, Fla., Chris Girandola has been a sports journalist for over eight years and is currently the Rays Senior Writer for RaysDigest.com. His other writing credits include the Associated Press, St. Petersburg Times, Naples News, Florida Football Magazine, KentuckyBasketball Magazine, and Tampa Bay Business Journal. You can follow him on Twitter at @cgrand


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