COMMENTARY | Gordon Beckham, the White Sox opening day second baseman, suffered a hamate bone injury during his seventh game of the season, requiring surgery and a trip to the disabled list. Early estimates have predicted a six week recovery, which would make his return likely to occur in late May or early June. On April 30th, his stitches were removed and he became cleared to begin swinging a bat. To account for his loss, the White Sox have moved newly acquired Jeff Keppinger from third base to second base and have had Conor Gillaspie take over at third. Gillaspie, acquired in a trade for minor league pitcher Jeff Soptic during spring training, has flourished in his new role as starter.
Gillaspie, 25 years old, had only 44 major league at-bats before his trade to the White Sox. With Pablo Sandoval manning the hot corner in San Francisco, the once highly rated prospect Gillaspie was made expendable. The White Sox had terrible luck last season with their third basemen, losing a then-slumping Brent Morel to injury before having to bench Orlando Hudson with the acquisition of Kevin Youkilis. While Youkilis went on to command big money in New York, the White Sox brought in Jeff Keppinger to fill the void via free agency. Keppinger has long been a utility player and is coming off a career season in Tampa Bay, in which he garnered starts at every infield position. With Paul Konerko, Beckham, and Alexei Ramirez returning for the White Sox, Keppinger was penciled in as the opening day third baseman. Gillaspie was brought in as extra depth and a left-handed bat to compliment Keppinger, a right-handed hitter.
Beckham's injury proved a chance at extended playing time for Gillaspie and he has made the most of it. Coming into May 3rd's action in Kansas City, Gillaspie has posted a .319 batting average to go with 3 home runs, 5 runs batted in, and a most impressive .890 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. His defense at third base, his natural position, has been solid as well. With Dayan Viciedo out, Gillaspie has been batting in the sixth spot behind Paul Konerko in the White Sox batting order.
Jeff Keppinger has not had problems with the switch to second defensively, as he has been accustomed to playing a utility role throughout his career. His struggles at the plate have continued through the switch, however, as he has managed just a .194 batting average to go along with an uncharacteristically high 11 strikeouts through 93 at bats. He also has yet to draw a single walk on the season. Keppinger has posted a career .284 career average over 2500 at bats, but he has rarely held a full-time role that exposes him to so much right handed pitching. Only 13 of Keppinger's at bats this season have come against left-handed pitching, against whom he has historically hit much better than right-handed pitching. In his breakout season last year, over a third of his at bats came against left-handed pitchers.
Beckham was carrying a .316 average at the time of his injury, though he had only 19 at bats at the time. His defense at second base is renowned and certainly provides value that cannot be quantified, but is likely to be prized by his manager. Ventura and the White Sox have not indicated what their plan will be when Beckham returns, but it seems likely that he will be the primary starter until and unless his production leaves more to be desired. While Beckham's career batting average numbers are less than impressive, his defense and ability to hit home runs (16 in 2012) may make him difficult to displace in the lineup for Keppinger. With Gillaspie's emergence at third base, Ventura may face skepticism if he relegates Gillaspie to the bench.
A platoon situation is possible, in which Keppinger would start against left-handed pitchers and Gillaspie would start against righties. However, this would restrict Keppinger's playing time rather significantly. Since the White Sox committed 3 years and $12 million to Keppinger in the offseason, it is unclear whether they will be willing to remove him from the everyday lineup. Before writing off Keppinger's start as simply declining skills or the mere result of too many appearances against right-handed pitchers, keep in mind that he suffered a leg injury in the offseason, was sidelined by a shoulder problem in spring training, and recently had to spend a couple games on the bench with back pain. Any or all of these may have contributed to the slow start and Ventura has mentioned the cold weather as a difficult adjustment for Keppinger as well. With less than a month until Beckham's likely return, Keppinger will certainly need to get his bat going soon. If not, the White Sox will not be able to bench their first promising young third baseman in years. If both hitters hit well through May, Ventura and the White Sox will have to consider using Keppinger in a super-utility role: giving him near daily starts at each infield spot to give players rest and to fill in for Gillaspie and Adam Dunn against left-handed starting pitchers.
Jacob Long, a native to the Chicago area, is a writer for the Yahoo! Contributor Network. He also has experience covering sports and news for WMC-TV in Memphis,TN and has contributed to sports blogs such as The Flapship.
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