“In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
--Benjamin Franklin, 13 Nov 1788
If baseball had a sport-specific antecedent to the famous Benjamin Franklin line, they would probably churn out “…Cheating, chewing tobacco, and Jeff Keppinger’s batting average” as three constants throughout baseball.
If there were a Hall of Fame for the relatively obscure in sports, Keppinger ought be an inductee. A 2001 pick out of the University of Georgia, Keppinger has a career .320 average in 2340 career plate appearances, as well as a career .309 mark in the majors, but had never caught on to full season duty. He might have had that chance with the New York Mets, who went through four second basemen last year, including Ruben Gotay, for whom the Royals sent for the rights to Keppinger.
Now a Red, albeit playing shortstop, he is now forming with Indians cast-off Brandon Phillips into the best middle infield of cast-offs in the majors. In Phillips the Reds have their first 30/30 athlete since Barry Larkin, but a sure defender to go with great speed and power. Opposite him you have Keppinger, a high-contact hitter who also manages to get on base at a clip over .360.
While Keppinger’s defense at his new full-time position is merely adequate, it more than makes up for other, more announced tandems. The Marlins much-lauded combo of Dan Uggla and Hanley Ramirez put up similarly impressive numbers from historically inferior hitting positions, but they bring nothing to the table defensively, with Ramirez rating so bad in his defense that BP rated him only about the eighth-best player in the NL, despite leading the entire league in VORP, which doesn’t account for defense.
The Keppinger/Phillips tandem also doesn’t hurt the bank, either, with their combined salary costing the Reds $285,000 less than one year of Alex Gonzalez, last year’s starter at shortstop, or about half of a heathy/injured 38 year-old Ken Griffey, Jr. In comparison, Cano/Jeter are making $24.6 million in 2008.
Maybe the biggest turn towards the progression of this franchise, and with it Keppinger’s career is the early-season backing he’s received by Dusty Baker. The ever-leery Baker, who has been called by many, including Baseball Prospectus, to both bench offensive-minded fielders as well as force his hitters to swing instead of take pitches, cutting down on walks and effectively damning the career of Corey Patterson. With Alex Gonzalez down for another month or so, Baker will continue to use Keppinger for the foreseeable stretch, but there is optimism, as he’s expressed praise of him on both sides of his game.
"He's the guy that's kind of a perfect second hitter" Baker told MLB.com’s Mark Sheldon at the start of the 2008 campaign, lauding his contact ability especially in two-strike counts.
Should Keppinger hold down short for the rest of the season, he and Phillips should see even more offensive production once vaunted prospect Jay Bruce finally makes his way to the Show. Bruce, a 2006 first rounder from Beaumont, TX is their 21 year-old stud center fielder and the number one prospect according to BP’s Kevin Goldstein. Bruce oozes tools Makita wished they had and has exhibited prodigious power at every level with a minor league slugging percentage of .543 as he climbed five levels in less than three years.
The offense is set for the future, but pitching is something that must progress, but some pieces are in place. Harang is proving to be a better than league-average innings eater, but he needs the reinforcements that under-22 flamethrowers Johnny Cueto and Homer Bailey can bring. Each top ten prospect, Cueto and Bailey bring amazing heat and with each possessing a solid junk pitch, they will find success so long and their control holds up. Once they settle into the rotation and survive the hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark, the Reds figure to re-enter the playoff conversation as early as next year.
Mike White is a senior at Gonzaga University and freelance White Sox basher.