The injury bug has hit the Rays. Bossman Junior will be hitting the disabled list with back pains. There is a good possibility that Super Sam Fuld will miss a big chunk of the season. And Reid Brignac is supposedly playing through some pain.
Luckily, the Tampa Bay Rays signed infielder Jeff Keppinger for some depth and it looks like he will get a shot at some decent playing time with the recent injuries.
The outfield looks like it could shift to Desmond Jennings in center with Matt Joyce and Ben Zobrist playing the corners. This leaves a hole at second base, assuming Sean Rodriguez gets the bulk of playing time at shortstop, that Jeff Keppinger would be more than happy to fill when he his not playing first base.
Keppinger did not appear in a game until May 27th last year after undergoing surgery on his foot in January. Now, more than a full year since his surgery, Keppinger should have no problems.
His 2011 season saw a step backwards in the patience department after three straight seasons of increased walk rates, going from 6.0% in his first full season to 7.8% the next and 8.9% in 2010. Last year's abysmal 3.0% walk rate is not from chasing too many pitches outside the zone but from being less selective and simply not taking any pitches. Take a look at his Swing Pitch Types from Pitchfx.TexasLeaguers:
Keppinger took a free pass just one time in his first 11 games, spanning 46 plate appearances. He walked in back-to-back games one time and only had one two-walk game. He went in a walking slump from June 20th to August 26th where he walked only thrice in 203 plate appearances. Simply put, the man likes to swing the bat. The Rays preach patience and I hope it's a message that Keppinger applies to his game.
Keppinger also seemed to be the victim of a little bad luck. His BABIP of .280 is not so low that one would suggest bad luck, but it was a bit low for a man with a 23.7% line-drive rate and one who hits the ball on the ground a lot. In fact, going into 2011 he had a career average of .695 and slugging percentage of .913 on line-drives and those numbers fell to .642 and .778 in 2011. Not a major drop but I think his career line is closer to what we can expect.
I expect to see some positive regression in both Keppinger's BABIP and walk rates.
Something we already know is that Keppinger can flat out hit left-handed pitching. He is a career .324/.371/.481 hitter against southpaws. The Rays face, within the division, 35% left-handed starters and Boston's long reliever and 6th starter is also left-handed.
Keppinger is also very good against lower velocities with a career +2.49 wSF/C and +1.24 wCH/C and Baseball-Reference has him as a career .258/.324/.346 hitter against power pitchers and career .289/.333/.404 hitter against average and finesse pitchers. I would not expect to see him in a game against Brandon Morrow but I would expect him in a game against Henderson Alvarez.
Keppinger is merely an average base runner with a career -0.2 Bsr and his defense can be a bit spotty at times. He has not played shortstop since 2010 and has a career -12.4 UZR in 1397 innings. Keppinger has played all over the diamond this spring and looks to get most of his playing time at second and first base. He has a career -6.0 UZR at second in 2315 innings and -0.2 at first in a very small sample 50.2 innings. He will not kill you with the glove but he is not an asset with it.
Elliot Johnson also looks like he will now make the team and get a fair shake at some playing time as well.
Johnson's value is not in his bat. His best performance, in the small sample size we have at the top level, is against the fastball and it's at a -0.67 wFB/C. Johnson adds value where Keppinger does not, in his glove and on the bases.
Johnson does have a negative net stolen base total but his Bsr in a small sample size is +0.8. Johnson owns a career +4.3 UZR in 355.2 innings at shortstop and a +0.9 in a very small sample 47 innings at second base. In those 355.2 innings at short Johnson also has 28 out of zone plays and his .884 RZR last year was only bested by Brandon Crawford (min 300 innings).
In an early series against Toronto we could see Joe Maddon get the best out of both players. If the Jays go with fifth starter Alvarez then Ricky Romero followed by Brandon Morrow we should see Keppinger start games one and two with Elliot Johnson pairing with Zobrist up the middle against Morrow in game three and improving the defense.
Where Keppinger struggles to bring some added value Johnson picks up the pieces. The two may not exactly be platoon partners but we could see the two interchanging for each other during the season.