Veteran utility man likes air of expectations surrounding club
By Adam Berry / MLB.com | 03/07/12 6:19 PM EST
TAMPA, Fla. -- Standing in front of his locker Wednesday in the close quarters of the visiting clubhouse at Steinbrenner Field, Jeff Keppinger held his thumb and index finger in front of his face, hardly any distance between them.
How different are the expectations with the Rays, his new team, than what they've been throughout the rest of his career?
"A little bit," Keppinger laughed. "Just a little bit.
"You have those expectations wherever you're at, but some are a little more realistic than others."
Keppinger, signed this offseason to play a utility role, has spent his entire career with losing teams. He has played on exactly one above-.500 team, the 2011 Giants, and even then, San Francisco collapsed in the second half and actually went 29-35 after acquiring Keppinger. So, yes, the fact that this year's Rays are talking during Spring Training about winning the World Series might be a little different for the 31-year-old infielder.
In this case, however, different is certainly a good thing.
"It's nice to be on a team where they've got confidence, and where they've got confidence to go out there and win," Keppinger said. "That's what you're here to do. You're out here for the ultimate goal, which is to get to the World Series."
Keppinger started his Major League career in 2004 with the Mets, who lost 91 games, and until last year, he had never been on a team that lost fewer than 86 games. When he arrived in San Francisco on July 20, 2011, the Giants were in first place, an unfamiliar situation he was quick to note. But that didn't stick, either.
That brought Keppinger to St. Petersburg, where the Rays have the fourth-highest regular-season winning percentage (.568) in the Majors over the last four seasons. And the expectations, a byproduct of what the club has accomplished since emerging from baseball's cellar, aren't getting any lower, as manager Joe Maddon and his players have openly embraced the hype.
"I love it. I think it's great," Maddon said Wednesday. "I'll tell you what's really not so fun is 2006 and 2007, when there's absolutely no expectations involved. I much prefer going into the year this way.
"That's part of the maturation process. I think if you start running away from expectations, you're pretty much setting yourself up for the fall. It's not like we went out there and proclaimed all these things. People are talking about us, or to us, about these items, so I think it's up to us to react, and react appropriately. We're not going to run away from any of this stuff."
Maddon acknowledged that reaching the World Series is something that's mentioned in every clubhouse every spring, albeit with "degrees of believability attached to it." As Keppinger can certainly attest to, some clubs have a much higher degree of believability than others.
"We really believe it as being a possibility. That is our goal, to get back there this year," Maddon said. "That's our goal, and I want our guys to think that way."
Keppinger will look for his moment wherever possible, which is part of the reason he's spent so much time at first base this spring. The Giants opted to keep utility infielder Mike Fontenot over Keppinger, saying Fontenot offered more defensive versatility. And the Rays' middle infield mix is already fairly crowded with Ben Zobrist at second base and right-handed hitter Sean Rodriguez battling lefty-hitting Reid Brignac for the starting-shortstop job.
But Keppinger could see time at first base in certain situations, though Maddon said he'll also play some second, shortstop and third. A solid contact hitter with a .281 average over seven seasons, Keppinger has posted a .324/.371/.481 career batting line against lefties. Carlos Pena, on the other hand, has seen his numbers against left-handers dip considerably due to the defensive shift teams employ against him.
"I'm eager to see it. This is a guy that historically hammers on lefties," Maddon said. "Carlos is an everyday player who will play against a lot of lefties, but if you're going to give him a day off, why not pick that guy who's really tough against them?"
That possibility has led Keppinger to spend a lot of time working at first base this spring, and while he still has to improve his positioning and learn a few other nuances of the position, he said he is already feeling more comfortable there. He made a sharp play during the Rays' 4-0 win over the Yankees on Wednesday, stopping a well-hit grounder down the right-field line and forcing the runner out unassisted.
"I'm one of those guys who just tries to catch the ball, so it doesn't really matter where I'm at," Keppinger said. "The bigger glove actually helps out a little bit -- gives me an extra three inches of range. ... If you can play around the infield, you can play first base. That's how I feel."
So, Keppinger will continue working at first base. And he'll get his opportunities around the rest of the infield as well, just as he always has, with one major difference: The group around him will be aiming much higher than he's used to.
"It's good to have guys on your team and in the organization who view [the World Series] as the expectation. You've got something to try to live up to," Keppinger said. "This is a great group of guys. This is a good team for me to be on, and I'm glad to be here."
Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.