OAKLAND — The White Sox have an eye geared toward the future, and that’s why Jeff Keppinger is no longer here.
Citing playing time for a young group of infielders, White Sox general manager Rick Hahn announced the team has designated the veteran for assignment on Wednesday. The White Sox have 10 days to either trade, reassign or release Keppinger, who is out of minor-league options.
With Keppinger — who earns $4 million this season and $4.5 million in 2015 — out of the picture, the White Sox can continue to divide playing time among Conor Gillaspie, Marcus Semien, Leury Garcia and Gordon Beckham as well as Micah Johnson and Carlos Sanchez at Triple-A Charlotte.
“Basically the decision today is about wanting to give plate appearances at the big league level that are available to some of our younger players,” Hahn said. “We also have some young players at Charlotte who are knocking at the door who conceivably at some point this season may be up here and wanted to give them the opportunity to play fairly regularly if and when that time comes. Really this was about focusing on the future as opposed to trying to justify a decision from the past.”
When they signed Keppinger 17 months ago to a three-year, $12-million deal, the White Sox were in a bad way. Free agent Kevin Youkilis was out of their price range, they had no prospects at third base and Semien and Johnson seemed to be light-years away from the majors.
Keppinger was seen as a solid No. 2 hitter and a good stopgap until the farm system could catch up. Then Gillaspie was acquired in February from the San Francisco Giants, and Semien and Johnson took off at Double-A and Single-A, respectively.
Meanwhile, Keppinger struggled to hit. He finished the season with a .253/.283/.317 slash line, four homers and 40 RBIs in 451 plate appearances before he had season-ending shoulder surgery in September.
But with the future on the precipice, Hahn said chairman Jerry Reinsdorf allowed him the flexibility to eat Keppinger’s salary, which would happen were the White Sox unable to work out a trade.
“I was comfortable with the process that led to the decision, but sometimes they just don’t work out,” Hahn said. “We just didn’t have the depth internally to address that need. That puts you in a bad situation when you’re kind of forced to choose among what’s currently available. Your options needed to be better going forward in terms of creating our own alternatives in advance of having a need. This is to an extent the price of doing business and part of the business we’re in that sometimes these things aren’t going to work out. It’s unfortunate. That one’s on me, but I give Jerry credit for allowing us not to make future decisions based strictly on economics. This was a decision obviously not made based on economics, it was made based upon wanting to give our younger guys an opportunity to play.”
The choice makes manager Robin Ventura’s job a little easier. He and the White Sox coaching staff have had to be creative to find playing time for everyone and would have faced a bigger challenge had Keppinger returned.
“You’re sitting there trying to get young guys playing time and then fit wise, the direction we’re going, the decision was made to give the guys that we have you’re going to give them as much experience as we can,” Ventura said. “You want to give them that experience and this time to be able to do that. With Sem and guys we have below, it’s their time to have an opportunity.”
Semien didn’t think he’d get a confidence boost out of the space created by Keppinger’s departure. He had a chance to play alongside Keppinger last September and again this spring — their stalls were next to each other — and appreciated the knowledge he received.
“I learned a lot from him,” Semien said. “He was great to me. As far as the roster move I’m indifferent about it. My confidence is continuing to grow no matter what.”
The same can be said for the belief the White Sox have in Johnson, who was promoted to Triple-A Charlotte on Tuesday. They believe they drafted a first-round talent in Johnson in the ninth round in 2012 and have a dynamic player complete with speed, aptitude and some pop. Though they haven’t established a timeframe for his promotion to the majors, the White Sox would love for Johnson to force them to make a move again. Johnson, who was only promoted to Double-A at the end of 2013, spent all of spring training in big league camp.
“We’ll see how he responds to this one and how quickly he forces the issue that it’s time for him to play in Chicago,” Hahn said. “We don’t have a set expectation in mind. The good ones tend to come fairly quickly and kind of force the timeframe on you.”