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Keppinger blossoms into utility man

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Jeff Keppinger wasn't all that happy when Pittsburgh moved the former Parkview and Georgia standout from shortstop to second base after drafting him in 2001.

In hindsight, though, the move was a blessing in disguise.

Keppinger has stuck in the major leagues because of his versatility and is now a bit of a super sub for the Houston Astros.

With rookie Tommy Manzella coming back from a calf strain, Keppinger may get the start at shortstop on Monday in the opener against San Francisco at Houston. But if he doesn't, it really won't matter.

For all intents and purposes, Keppinger is a regular. He just doesn't have a regular position.

Keppinger, who turns 30 on April 21, is set to share time at second and third, as well as shortstop. And he may also get plenty of action at first with Lance Berkman starting the season on the disabled list after knee surgery.

The Dacula-area resident has played all those positions, plus left field, in the majors during his stints with the New York Mets, Kansas City, Cincinnati and Astros.

"Being a utility guy, you've got to be prepared to play anywhere," Keppinger said. "That's the value that I bring. You can pretty much put me anywhere."

Keppinger may have finally found a home -- if not a position -- in Houston after being traded four times, including while he was in the minors with the Pirates. He received a $1.15 million contract for this season as a reward for what he did a year ago.

Dealt by Cincinnati just a few days before the start of last season, Keppinger got into 107 games with the Astros and hit .256 with seven homers and 29 RBIs. He started 76 games -- 59 at third, 14 at second and three at shortstop -- and also got some time in the outfield.

The batting average was a drop from what he hit with Cincinnati the previous two years, but he continued to be one of the toughest hitters to strike out in the majors. Keppinger has struck out only 82 times in 1,181 career at-bats. That's just once every 16 times up.

Keppinger also has value as a pinch hitter because of the right-handed batter's success against lefty pitchers. He's a career .341 hitter against southpaws, which is why he started 33 of the Astros' 38 games against a left-handed starter in 2009.

Keppinger had a breakthrough year in 2007, hitting .332 in 67 games with the Reds after starting the season in the minors. He started well in 2008, too, but then suffered a broken left kneecap.

Keppinger finished with a .266 average in his final season with the Reds and was the odd man out during spring training a year ago despite being the starting shortstop the year before.

But the trade to Houston kept him in the majors and he took advantage of the opportunity.

General manager Ed Wade appreciated what Keppinger brought to the team and new manager Brad Mills was a convert this spring.

Pedro Feliz was signed as a free agent to start at third base, but there is more of an opportunity at shortstop with Miguel Tejada gone and Kaz Matsui not a full-time player at second base.

But it may actually be at first base where Keppinger gets plenty of action early in the season. Becuase of Berkman's injury period.

"You just hope you can come back each year and stick around to keep playing," Keppinger said. "Being able to play a lot of positions gives me more options to get in a game. If you're stuck in one position, it's tough to break through and get on a team."