GLENDALE, Ariz. — As the past two Cactus League games have shown, Jeff Keppinger is going to be the White Sox’ starting third baseman.
Overcoming some shoulder soreness that slowed him earlier in spring training, Keppinger looked right at home playing third Tuesday against the Reds and Wednesday against the Diamondbacks.
As an added bonus, he was 4-for-4 with 3 walks, raising his Cactus League average to a sizzling .500.
Considering he’s a career .288 hitter and the second-hardest active player to strike out behind Juan Pierre, Keppinger could be a relative bargain with a $12 million contract over three years.
But over the course of a 162-game season, things are always subject to change.
When Keppinger needs a break, or should he slide over to second base if Gordon Beckham struggles, the White Sox have an interesting option at third base.
Acquired in a Feb. 22 trade from the Giants for minor-league pitcher Jeff Soptic, Conor Gillaspie gives the Sox a needed left-handed bat.
The 25-year-old third baseman has been a pleasant surprise this spring, hitting .278 (10-for-36) with 2 home runs and 10 RBI.
“The key to being a young guy here is trying to have good at-bats, trying to show you understand what you’re doing up there rather than just going up there and swinging,” Gillaspie said.
When Brent Morel was optioned to Class AAA Charlotte on Tuesday, Gillaspie all but locked up a spot on the White Sox’ 25-man roster.
“I haven’t put too much thought into breaking with the team or not,” Gillaspie said. “We’re getting down kind of towards the end here. Hopefully, I’ve done enough, but I’m just really trying to do the best I can and get ready for wherever I might be.”
Gillaspie played in 8 games with San Francisco in 2008 and 21 more in 2011-12. He’s never played at U.S. Cellular Field, but Gillaspie already knows what to expect from Sox fans.
“I’ve talked with some people here and from what I understand, it’s a pretty tough working class in that part of town (South Side),” Gillaspie said. “But that’s pretty much my career to a T. Ability wise, there are a few things I do pretty well. The other stuff, I have to work. I’ve had to work so hard to get to this level.
“I know everybody’s had to work hard, but there are some guys in this game that are just really good. That’s definitely not me. I’ve had to work for every ounce of playing time, at every level, too. Not just in the minor leagues, but in high school, everywhere.”
Gillaspie was good enough at Wichita State to be drafted by the Giants with the 37th overall pick. He was also first member of his draft class to reach the major leagues.
Overcoming some admitted lack of natural ability has been the key for Gillaspie.
“In high school, I wasn’t anything to brag about,” said Gillaspie, who prepped at Millard North in Omaha, Neb. “I had a couple places to play Division I and that was about it. I’ve really, really had to work hard, especially in the off-season. I’ve kind of sacrificed some things I like to do just to work hard, get bigger in the weight room, put on weight. It’s a grind every day for me because ability wise, I can’t really hang with a lot of these guys.”
Gillaspie said he gained 15 pounds of muscle over the winter and is now carrying 210 pounds on his 6-foot-1 frame.
“I lifted a lot heavier and really tried to build myself into something where I can drive the ball a little bit better,” Gillaspie said. “I was a really skinny kid. There’s no other way to put it. I’ve had to bust my tail my whole life just to be here.”
When he does arrive on the South Side, Gillaspie is determined to earn the respect of White Sox fans.
“That’s probably the biggest thing about me - I’m never not going to work for you,” he said. “I think I can be fairly successful in whatever job I do some day just because I really don’t mind working, whatever the job is. I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty and work.
“Doing that, it’s the only way I’m ever going to play at this level. If I don’t do that, I’ll be doing something else here in a year or two. I scrap and fight and out-compete people. That’s the only way I was ever taught to do things.”
Gillaspie’s work ethic — and natural ability — has impressed Sox manager Robin Ventura.
“He has a short swing and he makes a lot of contact,” Ventura said. “Just the way he plays the game, we were fortunate to pick him up. He’s hard-nosed and willing to play.”
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