We reported last Tuesday that the Tampa Bay Rays were interested in Jeff Keppinger, and well, what do you know? Marc Topkin from the Tampa Bay Times is now reporting that the Rays are close to signing Keppinger, and that a deal could be announced later this week.
I was initially ambivalent about Keppinger, but the more I'm looking into this move, the more I like it. Keppinger is another bench bat, plain and simple. As such, he's competing against the following players for the three non-catcher bench spots on the Rays' roster:
We can eliminate Brandon Guyer from the list pretty easily. While I love him and I think he's a better offensive player right now than Sam Fuld, the Rays don't rush prospects. Despite his advanced age, Guyer will start the season in Triple-A and stay there until they think he's finally ready to hit the majors for good. This may seem extreme -- he did crush Triple-A last season over 440 plate appearances -- but Guyer has an important future with the Rays: he's expected to slide into the outfield in 2013 once B.J. Upton leaves via free agency. If the Rays halt his development by making him a bench player this season, what happens then?
So with Fuld on the team and Guyer in Triple-A, that leaves four players -- Keppinger, Johnson, Brignac, and Canzler -- for two bench spots. Canzler doesn't have much positional flexibility and the reports suggest his defense is poor, so he seems like an unlikely candidate with Carlos Pena and Luke Scott now in house.
And honestly? Out of Keppinger, Brignac, and Johnson, Kepp is the best player. His defense may be mediocre to poor, but he makes up for it with his bat. He has a good walk rate, doesn't strike out much, and he posted a .295 wOBA last season while struggling through two separate injuries (foot and wrist). That was a down year for Keppinger, too; he is projected to post around a .318 wOBA, and he posted a .332 wOBA in 2010.
While that may not sound like much, it's worth remembering how much Briggy and EJ both stunk at the plate last season. They were black holes; Johnson looked like the powerhouse of the two, and even he only had a .252 wOBA. Both of them would be lucky to post higher than a .295 wOBA, while that is essentially Keppinger's worst case scenario.
Also, as has been noted by many of you guys, Keppinger is a right-handed hitter who mashes lefties. He has a fantastic career line against lefties (.368 wOBA), while his line against righties is much less thrilling (.298 wOBA). Considering the Rays have recently signed a number of hitters with issues against left-handed pitching, doesn't it make sense to have a bench player that's good against them?
Remember when Friedman said this a few weeks ago?
"We obviously value defense a lot, but there's times where enough offense trips that line and makes it something that makes sense for the team."
At the time, I thought he was talking about a slugging first baseman, but the quote perfectly fits this situation. Keppinger has primarily played second base in recent years, and he looks like he's a poor fielder there (around -5 runs). But at the same time, his offense is considerably better than the Rays would receive from Briggy or EJ, and he's a good fit with their current roster construction. He can always play in the middle infield, and I wouldn't be surprised if the Rays tried him out at first base on occasion.
This is a bit of an atypical move for the Rays, as they're adding a bench player that isn't a defensive specialist. But considering everything else that Kepp brings to the table, I'm okay with it.
UPDATE: ESPN's Jerry Crasnick reports the deal is done pending a physical.