The Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t been known to cut big checks to free agents. Fans hope that this year could be an exception, but with a weak free agent class, this may not be the best off-season to loosen the purse strings on multi-year deals.
The Pirates best plan this season may be to sign inexpensive free agent pieces that fit their biggest needs. As discussed in this space before over the past few weeks, the Pirates biggest needs include more offense against left-handed pitching and more on-base percentage at the top of their lineup. I’ll now add to that list a stronger bench with more productive players, including one or two who are capable of playing on a semi-regular basis.
There is one player on the free agent market who can help fill all three needs, and he can be had for a reasonable price, even if the Pirates overpay.
Jeff Keppinger had a career year in 2012, hitting .325/.367/.439 in 115 games because he finally found a team that used him properly in the Tampa Bay Rays, although even they would likely admit that they were forced to play him against righties more than they had hoped. Not a star player, Keppinger has proven over his eight year career that he has the ability to hit left-handed pitching well enough to warrant regular at-bats against them.
Against lefties, Keppinger has a career line of .333/.376/.487 against southpaws compared to a .269/.321/.358 mark against righties. As a member of the Pirates, Keppinger would be able to be used almost exclusively against lefties, even moreso than he was with the Rays.
Keppinger was forced into more action than the Rays initially planned in 2012 due to the injury to third baseman Evan Longoria. He began the season splitting time at second base and throughout the season was used to spell first baseman Carlos Pena against lefties as well.
The Pirates would not need to use him as often as the Rays did in 2012, but they do have a similar need at first base, with Garrett Jones having the same problems against lefties as Pena. Gaby Sanchez is still in the mix as well, but Keppinger has proven to be a similar hitter against lefties as Sanchez. Keppinger’s abilities at second and third base give the Pirates more options with him, and he’s even seen some time in the outfield in the past.
Keppinger could also be used by the Pirates to spell third baseman Pedro Alvarez against lefties, and even Neil Walker, despite being a switch-hitter, has a pretty sizable platoon split favoring him from the left side of the plate.
There would be plenty of at-bats for Keppinger to earn against lefties, taking turns filling in against lefties for Jones, Alvarez, Walker and even Travis Sinder in the outfield.
He’s also quite affordable. Keppinger made just $1.525 million last season and has never made more than $2.3 in a season. It might take that to get him, especially coming off the season he just had and in order to pursuade him to take on a bench role, but overpaying by $500,000 in order to get the right pieces is a much safer strategy than overpaying big-name free agents by $50 million.