Late yesterday, reports circulated that free agent infielder Jeff Keppinger broke his fibula (the smaller lower leg bone) after tripping down the stairs at home. There were a number of teams in on him at the time, but the injury clouded the story a bit, even though he’s expected to be healed in time for Spring Training.
I started to type up a “Keppinger is injured, maybe the Cubs could view him as an undervalued asset now” post, but the evening ran late, and I saved it for today.
But someone beat me to the Keppinger punch. Namely: the Cubs.
This morning, Buster Olney tweeted that three teams had been “aggressive” on Keppinger before he broke his fibula: the Rays, the Diamondbacks, and the Cubs.
Assuming he’s healthy (or, even if he’s not, and the Cubs are looking to take a chance on him), Keppinger is an interesting fit for the Cubs. He could be the positional equivalent of a number of the Cubs’ pitching targets. That is to say, he could be rather flippable.
As a utility type who can play decently all over the infield (minus shortstop, at least since 2010), he would seem to have the most value on a contending team in need of a top bench player. But, with the Cubs, Keppinger could be in the mix to start at third base (neither the Diamondbacks nor the Rays appear to be in need of a starting third baseman or second baseman).
From there, perhaps he’s part of a surprisingly good Cubs team, or perhaps he plays well enough – and regularly enough – to become a nice trade chip at the deadline. At that point, he could fulfill his destiny as a great bench player on a contender, or even start if that team was trying to fill an injury-induced hole. If the Cubs had to pay a little more to sign him, everybody wins: he gets more money to be a “starter” with the Cubs, the Cubs get a possible trade chip, he gets the chance to head to a contender thereafter, and the receiving team gets their super utility player.
That all said, Keppinger is a tricky contract case, even if you ignore the injury. He’ll be 33 next year, and he’s coming off a career season with the Rays, in which he hit .325/.367/.439, and totaled 2.8 WAR. Obviously he and his agent will be pointing to those numbers when soliciting offers, but teams will probably point to his career .288/.337/.396 line (which still isn’t all that bad – it’s a career 97 OPS+), and his elevated .332 BABIP last year (for his career, it’s just .294, which suggests Keppinger was very lucky last year). Indeed, if you shave those 36 points off of his batting average, Keppinger’s career 2012 season becomes a .289/.331/.403 season, which is essentially right in line with his career numbers.
So, if you’re making Keppinger an offer, your best bet is to view him as a guy who’s future productivity is likely to be, at best, right around his career averages, with the possibility of a decline as he ages. In other words, he’s not a guy you offer three years and $15 million. Two years and $8 million? Maybe.
How does his injury impact things? Well, it could make pursuing teams a little more leery of giving him multiple years or a starting job. He’s expected to be recovered in time for Spring Training, and interested teams have access to his medical reports (Olney later added that he doesn’t expect the injury to deter teams in pursuing Keppinger). Perhaps the Cubs, offering the most guaranteed money on a one-year deal and a starting job at third base (just as an example), could now get him for just one year. That would certainly make him an intriguing flippable piece, even if he regresses to his career averages. (Just look at the return two months of Jeff Baker netted the Cubs.)
Would the Cubs guarantee him a starting job? Probably not. They would undoubtedly tell him that he’d be in the mix to start at third base – which is true, and he may not even get that much from another team. But Keppinger’s value, even to a team like the Cubs, is clearly highest when he’s in a utility role. He could arguably get the most at bats with the Cubs, though, depending on what happens with Luis Valbuena.