Imagining Jeff Keppinger in Pinstripes
By Robbie Knopf
The Rays failed to make the postseason in 2012- but Jeff Keppinger was a big reason they got as far as they did, winning 90 games for the third straight year. Keppinger had a huge season, posting a .325/.367/.439 line (127 OPS+) with 15 doubles, 9 homers, 40 RBI, and 31 strikeouts against 24 walks in 115 games and 418 plate appearances while seeing time at third base, first base, and second base. But while the Rays were thrilled by Keppinger’s performance, it also set him up for a big payday in free agency, lowering the likelihood of the Rays re-signing exponentially. The Yankees’ reported interest in Keppinger only makes it less probable Keppinger plays in Tampa Bay next season as anything but a visiting player.
Should Rays fans be mad that the Rays are about to let a player who was such a crucial part of their team last season leave without second thought? We’re not talking B.J. Upton where he’s going to get a long-term deal at an annual value the Rays couldn’t dream of paying. In this case, after a somewhat similar player in Jonny Gomes got a 2-year, 10 million dollar contract from the Red Sox, Keppinger looks to be in line for a 2-year deal worth 15 or 16 million dollars. Both Gomes and Keppinger are solid players who are especially good against left-handed pitching, although Gomes is a power hitter while Keppinger’s specialty is putting the ball in play and hitting for a good average. Do you really want to give anywhere near 8 million dollars to a glorified platoon player? And was Keppinger’s breakout 2012 really indicative at all of what he’s going to be able to do over the life of that contract?
In 2011, Casey Kotchman came out of nowhere to be huge for the Rays and then the Rays let him leave as a free agent and watched him come apart playing for the Indians on a 1 year, 3 million dollar contract. Is Keppinger going to be the same thing? Keppinger’s .332 batting average on balls in play was well above his career BAbip of .294, basically the league average. What was the difference? 20 infield hits, most on the Rays, 1 more than a pair of faster players in B.J. Upton and Ben Zobrist– who also happened to have over 200 more plate appearances than Keppinger. Take out 10 of those infield hits to regress Keppinger down to about the league average rate of infield hits per plate appearance, and Keppinger’s BAbip is down to .304 and his batting average is down to .299. Taking out those infield hits, and Keppinger is down to a .299/.343/.413 line (119 OPS+), still a nice season but nearly as flashy as his 2012 numbers, and he would not be hoping to make 8 million dollars next year. We talked before how Keppinger’s breakout 2012 was not completely a fluke, but add in that he’ll be turning 33 in April and he’s not exactly the type of player you can depend on to be a key contributor to your lineup moving forward.
The Rays are all about efficiency and re-signing Jeff Keppinger would be the opposite of that. Sure, there’s always a chance that Keppinger’s 2012 breakthrough is something he can actually sustain. But paying him assuming that will be the case is ill-advised, especially for a team with a limited payroll like the Rays. What if the Yankees really do sign Keppinger? What if he comes to the Trop nine times in 2013 wearing the pinstripes every Rays fan dreads? Rays fans can loathe seeing Keppinger playing for another team but have to realize that just as finding a player like Keppinger is part of the process for the Rays, so too is letting him go knowing that the chances are that it won’t last and the money necessary to retain him would not be worth it. Instead of lamenting Jeff Keppinger leaving, Rays fans can look forward to the next time the Rays find a player who comes out of nowhere to be a pivotal piece of their ballclub. Knowing Andrew Friedman and the Rays’ player evaluation personnel, the wait won’t be very long.