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White Sox’ Jeff Keppinger produced last season when Rays let him swing away

Sox outfielder Jordan Danks was uniform as Chicago White Sox defeated ToronBlue Jays 4-3 Thursday June 7 2012 U.S. Cellular

Sox outfielder Jordan Danks was in uniform as the Chicago White Sox defeated the Toronto Blue Jays 4-3 Thursday June 7, 2012 at U.S. Cellular Field. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: February 14, 2013 11:43PM



GLENDALE, Ariz. — Jeff Keppinger handles the bat well, is tough to strike out and hit a career-high .325 last season.

Manager Robin Ventura has him in mind at the top of his order, probably second, but last year with the Tampa Bay Rays, manager Joe Maddon simply turned him loose like a cleanup hitter. Keppinger fits the mold of a situational hitter, but he was anything but as a Ray.

“They kind of told me to just go out and do my thing, go out there and hit,’’ Keppinger said Thursday. “It was the first team I had been on where they just let me go. They didn’t want me doing the little things. They didn’t want me moving runners or sacrifice-bunting.’’

Keppinger said he liked that.

“You look at his track record and what he does and what he’s capable of and you would like to have him up there as a high-average, contact guy that can move the ball around,’’ said Ventura, who wants the Sox to score in more ways than via the home run. “He can hit the ball out of the ballpark, too, but he’s a professional hitter.’’

Keppinger batted everywhere but leadoff last year and batted second only three times. He hit fifth 35 times, sixth 31 times and fourth 22 times. He struck out 31 times in 418 plate appearances.

“When I was a little kid, I used to cry when I struck out,’’ he said. “I felt like everyone was looking at me and upset with me that I didn’t hit the ball.’’

Morel of the story

Ventura didn’t rule out giving third baseman Brent Morel a look at shortstop, allowing him an opportunity to showcase some versatility that would enhance his chances of making the team. Morel has been swinging the bat well as he attempts to come back from a back injury.

“We need him to continue to show where he is physically once he gets into playing on a daily basis and diving for balls and running the bases and playing the game at full speed,’’ general manager Rick Hahn said. “So far everything has been real encouraging.’’

Rios eager for WBC

Alex Rios, who reported early, said he is “proud” to be playing for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic.

“It’s something every ballplayer looks forward to, playing for your country and playing in front of your crowd,’’ Rios said.

For starters

Dylan Axelrod will start the Cactus League opener Feb. 23 against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Chris Sale will be the first front-line starter to pitch, on March 1.



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