Keppinger poised to start at shortstop

Keppinger poised to start at shortstop

SARASOTA, Fla. -- When Alex Gonzalez was out for extended periods last season, it was Jeff Keppinger who often picked up the slack at shortstop for the Reds.

After Gonzalez was diagnosed on Friday with a compression fracture in his left knee, will they turn to Keppinger again?

"It's up to Dusty [manager Baker]," Keppinger said on Saturday. "It depends if he goes off of last year or if he goes by who's hot in spring this year. It's his call. I think I put myself in a good situation though. I showed I could handle the position."

It's likely that Gonzalez will start the regular season on the disabled list. Ordered to refrain from baseball activity for at least three weeks, he's not expected to be ready for Opening Day.

"I wouldn't think so, unless a miracle happens," Baker said. "He still has to get at-bats and baseball-ready. He won't be throwing or running. That's a pretty good setback, but we have to go on."

As for how exactly the Reds move forward without Gonzalez, Baker is keeping his options open at this point.

"I have to see them play," Baker said. "Not only offensively. Shortstop is a very important part defensively. I was counting on [Gonzalez] defensively."

Keppinger emerged for Cincinnati in 2007 when he batted .332 with five home runs and 32 RBIs in 67 games. A dependable glove as a utility infielder, he committed two of his three errors at shortstop. The 27-year-old made 43 of his 55 starts at shortstop when Gonzalez was either injured or out on bereavement leave for family reasons.

Before last season, Keppinger's only substantial experience at shortstop was in high school and college.

"The first couple of games they put me out there, I was a little iffy," Keppinger said. "But once our other shortstop went down, they kept throwing me out there and I got comfortable after a few games. Wherever I'm at, I try to catch the ball."

As for other candidates, the pool will include Juan Castro and Minor Leaguers Jerry Gil, Adam Rosales and Paul Janish. Baker is trying be careful with how he uses Castro, who is returning from reconstructive right elbow surgery.

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Castro and Rosales split Saturday's game at shortstop against the Pirates. Keppinger was a mid-game substitution at first base, another position he's learning.

Look out for the 24-year-old Rosales, who was the Reds' 12th-round Draft pick in 2005 and split last season at Class A Sarasota and Double-A Chattanooga. He's already caught Baker's eye by going 5-for-8 with a home run through four exhibition games, including two hits on Saturday.

"He doesn't look athletic. He just is athletic," Baker said. "He gets the job done big time. The more you're around him, the more you like him, the more he grows on you. He's in the right place at the right time. He felt bad [Friday] for throwing that ball away [for an error]. It's going to happen here. He's played well for us."

One player who is not a candidate to replace Gonzalez is second baseman Brandon Phillips, who was once a shortstop prospect. Baker immediately snuffed out any speculation regarding Phillips.

"No -- then you'd weaken yourself at two positions," Baker said. "You leave Brandon alone. If you do that too, it's more work on him defensively and that could affect his offense at the same time. He's a potential Gold Glove second baseman."

That could put Keppinger on the inside track for shortstop, barring an acquisition.

Keppinger may have had a breakthrough last season, but the Reds are under new management with Baker, who had never seen him play before camp opened. Therefore, Keppinger will have to keep proving himself.

"There are arguments to both sides," Keppinger said. "People could say, 'Hey, he was only out there a half a year and only had this many games or this many at-bats. You always have to do it, regardless of what you did the year before. This is a game of, 'What have you done for me lately?' It's not so much what you did last year."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.