NASHVILLE - According to Ken Rosenthal, the White Sox are close to a deal with free agent Jeff Keppinger for three years and $12 million dollars. While there's some panic that the White Sox might be overspending for the utility infielder, he's the perfect stopgap for the Sox, who have concerns about starting Brent Morel at third base full time in 2013.
It's not as though Keppinger will swoop into US Cellular Field and propel the White Sox to the top of the AL Central, but he provides a reliable solution for a team that hasn't had a franchise third basemen since now manager Robin Ventura manned the position from 1989 through '98. Last season, the White Sox decided that Brent Morel had earned the starting role at third after a hot final month of 2011, but he hit .177/.225/.195 before a trip to the disabled list in June. Morel's collapse left the White Sox scrambling for options and they signed Orlando Hudson, who was abysmal upon arrival. Before trading for Kevin Youkilis on June 24, White Sox third basemen collectively hit .168/.243/.224, and even though Youkilis was a slight boost in the lineup for 80 games, his .236/.346/.425 with 15 home runs wasn't enough to warrant a qualifying offer to the free agent.
While it's easy to pick on Jeff Keppinger, who has spent the majority of his career as a utility infielder, it's important to note the context of this signing. The White Sox don't have the depth internally without rushing Carlos Sanchez to the majors, there are a limited number of third basemen available, and several teams, including the Phillies, Cubs, and Reds, looking for a third baseman. It's not likely that Keppinger is an everyday solution at third, but in 2012, Keppinger hit .325/.367/.439 in 419 plate appearances with nine home runs, the best season of his career. Of course, some of that boost was BABiP related (.332), but even if there's some regression it helps stabilize the hot corner, not to mention that he can provide depth at second base behind Gordon Beckham, who's in roughly a 301-game hitting slump. The White Sox are still in need of a left-handed hitter, which might mean they get more aggressive about keeping A.J. Pierzynski.
The biggest concern with Keppinger is the three-year part, rather than the dollars, which is the side effect of the market. Despite his decline and injury history, Kevin Youkilis will likely get a three-year deal in the $36 million range, which sounds absurd until you consider the pool of available talent at third base now consists of Scott Rolen, Placido Polanco, and Ty Wiggington. Keppinger is just an insurance policy for a mostly stable infield, and given that he can fill a variety of roles, he's always a tradable asset, should Carlos Sanchez progress faster than anticipated or Brent Morel becomes an offensive juggernaut next season. I wouldn't hold my breath on the latter.