Well-traveled Keppinger has found home
Flexible utility man a favorite of Astros coaches, teammates
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Astros infielder Jeff Keppinger won't turn 30 for nearly two more months, but he has already played in five different organizations and has been traded four times. As you can imagine, putting down some roots hasn't been easy.
Nearly a year after his last trade -- a deal that brought him to the Astros from the Reds in exchange for Minor League infielder Drew Sutton on March 31, 2009 -- Keppinger is starting to feel comfortable in Houston. The Astros helped out by giving him a $1.15 million contract for 2010, showing him the kind of commitment he's seldom seen in baseball.
"You just hope you keep coming back each year and stick around and keep playing," Keppinger said.
Keppinger is the kind of versatile ballplayer whom managers love. He comes to the park every day prepared to do whatever is asked, whether start at shortstop, second base, the outfield or come off the bench and be asked to deliver the game-winning hit -- like he did in his first at-bat with the Astros last year.
The more you can do, Keppinger says, the more valuable you are.
"That means it gives me more options to get in a game," Keppinger said. "If you're stuck in one position and there's only 30 teams, it's tough to break through and get on a team. I spent my time in the Minors trying to do whatever I could to get up here, whether as a backup or starter. I'm happy to be here."
Keppinger had 305 at-bats in 107 games with the Astros last season, hitting .256 with seven homers and 29 RBIs. He started 76 games -- 59 at third base, 14 at second base and three at shortstop -- and got some time in left field.
His value to the Astros, however, goes beyond his versatility. He's a terrific contact hitter, having struck out only 82 times in 1,181 career at-bats (one every 16 plate appearances). And he's a career .341 hitter against left-handers, which is why he started 33 of the team's 38 games against lefties in 2009.
"He's been exactly what our scouts saw since he came over here," Astros general manager Ed Wade said. "I had [Lance] Berkman tell me during the season last year that he's very impressed with Keppinger because he's as prepared as any of the guys on our club. He prepares very well for the game.
"I've said before that with a 12-man pitching staff, you get a short bench, which then to me requires you to have a lot of versatility and have guys like Keppinger who can play all the field positions and pinch-hit and hit-and-run and move runners and those types of things."
Keppinger, who was drafted as a shortstop by Pittsburgh in 2001 before being traded to the New York Mets (2004), Kansas City Royals (2006) and Cincinnati Reds (2007), tasted life as an everyday player when he played in 121 games, including 101 starts at shortstop, for the Reds in 2008. That season Reds starting shortstop Alex Gonzalez was sidelined by a fractured right knee, and Keppinger hit .266 with three homer and 43 RBIs.
With the Astros last year, he platooned at third base with Geoff Blum after Aaron Boone was forced to miss nearly the entire season after undergoing open-heart surgery. His playing time at third figures to diminish this year with the signing of Pedro Feliz, but he could get plenty of at-bats at shortstop and second base.
"I'll get in when I get in, and hopefully the starters take care of their job and I can give them a break every now and then, and hopefully we can keep winning," Keppinger said.
The Pirates preached versatility to Keppinger at an early age. When he was drafted out of the University of Georgia as a shortstop, Pittsburgh told him right away he would never be a shortstop. The Mets put him at second base, but he was stuck behind current teammate Kaz Matsui.
"At the time, I told them I could play these other positions and I played them all growing up and let me play, and they let me get out and play left field and third base and a couple of games at short," Keppinger said. "It's worked out for me."
It's worked out for the Astros, too.
"All that Kepp ever does, as far as I'm concerned, is show up, prepare and play," Wade said. "I know, and not because he came to me, but he was upset and disappointed at different points during the season. He thought he was playing well and for whatever reason he stopped being used. At one point, it was [Edwin] Maysonet that came up and got hot, and Kepp didn't see the field for a while.
"It's a bit of a balancing act in that respect, and it's more of a balancing act in our situation this year, because now, if indeed Pedro is playing every day at third, getting at-bats for Blum and Keppinger is probably a little bit more difficult, but it's a nice position to be in."
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.