The White Sox found their third baseman at Major League Baseball's annual Winter Meetings, and the signing of Jeff Keppinger to a three-year, $12-million deal became official on Monday.
But now that the 32-year-old right-handed hitter is able to join the South Siders, it's safer to label him as the White Sox primary third baseman as opposed to definitive starter. Keppinger stands as an important piece to a winning team, having played every position but center field, catcher and pitcher during his eight-year career covering six organizations.
He's a great contact man at the plate with just 173 strikeouts in 2,705 plate appearances, and the .288 career hitter is coming off one of his best seasons after posting a .325 average for the Rays with nine homers and 40 RBIs. During the 2012 campaign, he played 50 games at third, 27 at first and 27 at second.
Keppinger has accumulated 500 plate appearances in a season just twice in his career, but he figures to challenge that total in 2013. The White Sox will continue to look for another infielder, with free-agent third baseman Jack Hannahan on the radar. Adding a left-handed bat such as Hannahan would give the White Sox a true opportunity to regularly take advantage of Keppinger's versatility, while allowing fast-rising infield prospect Carlos Sanchez to continue developing through a full season at Triple-A Charlotte instead of serving as the team's infrequently used utility infielder.
Kevin Youkilis, a free agent who played the final 80 games of 2012 as the White Sox third baseman after coming over in a June 24 trade with Boston, has moved out of the White Sox picture.
Last week at the Winter Meetings, general manager Rick Hahn briefly talked about Youkilis and catcher A.J. Pierzynski, a fellow free agent who spent the last eight years as a White Sox staple, and the talks between all sides since the start of the offseason.
"We've had real, honest, direct and clear communication with the representatives for our free agents that are out there," Hahn said. "They've known what we've been planning to do prior to it even hitting Twitter. We've had a sense of what it would take to sign them or kind of what their expectations and time frames are. No surprises either direction now."
At this point, it would be more of a surprise if Pierzynski or Youkilis returned, as opposed to the other way around. So, Tyler Flowers will get a starting chance behind the plate, with Keppinger moving in at third. Keppinger underwent surgery earlier this offseason to repair a small break in his right fibula after tripping down the stairs at his home, but is expected to be fully healthy and ready to go when Spring Training begins.
This deal will put the 2013 White Sox payroll at $93.95 million for 11 players, and by simply factoring in their own remaining players, the payroll should approach the $109 million mark from the end of last season. White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said that the 2013 payroll would be at least $109 million, but with Hahn still looking for a left-handed bat, an infielder, another veteran reliever and possibly a veteran catcher, it could surpass that mark.
Then again, with Keppinger in place, Hahn and the White Sox might explore the trade route. Gavin Floyd has been frequently mentioned as the target of opposing teams, although Hahn is not inclined to deal from a starting pitching area that makes the White Sox an American League Central title contender. Veteran relievers such as Matt Thornton and Jesse Crain hold some interest, but the White Sox also have appealing young talent in left fielder Dayan Viciedo and second baseman Gordon Beckham, to name a few.
Ultimately, the name of the game is catching the Tigers -- first in the division and then in the AL. To make that jump involves bold thinking, often of the impact-player nature.
"We'll always be in the market for impact guys. We've spent a lot of time in this room the last few days talking about impact moves that may never see the light of day," Hahn said. "Frankly in large part it's a tone that Kenny [Williams] has set and the tradition we're continuing to follow that if there are impact moves out there, we're going to try and chase them down.
"In terms of would we be able to convert on that, obviously there are economic match elements to it, so it depends on who that guy is and could we make it work. But we're not shying away from any conversations right now for any reason.
"We feel good that [there are] certain elements we feel confident will be better for us than they were in 2012, whether it be our pitchers being a year older and more experienced or having John Danks back," Hahn said. "But we know we need to continue to find ways to get better and keep up with [the Tigers]."
Finding a third baseman, following the two-year extension agreed upon with Jake Peavy in October, seems like steps in the right direction.
"Third base has been a priority for us," Hahn said. "Obviously with Kevin as a free agent, and having some internal options that has some uncertainty attached to them or some reluctance to change positions, with third base certainly being a need, in all probability had to be addressed from outside the organization."