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Breakout season puts prospect Kepler in Twins’ long-term plans

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Max Kepler is hitting .326 compared to the league average of .254 and his .955 OPS is more than 250 points above the league mark.

Max Kepler was signed out of Germany as a 16-year-old in 2009, receiving $800,000 the same year the Twins handed a record $3.15 million bonus to 16-year-old Dominican shortstop Miguel Sano. Six years later Sano is establishing himself as the Twins’ best hitter while making the idea of his massive frame ever playing shortstop seem impossible and Kepler is on the verge of joining him in Minnesota thanks to a breakout season at Double-A.

From the moment Kepler signed with the Twins he was billed as a good athlete with raw tools and lots of upside. He was a lanky center fielder then, but Kepler is now a solidly built 6-foot-4 corner outfielder/first baseman who still sees some time in center field. He’s always been young for each level of competition and Kepler’s on-field production often failed to match his prospect status, in part because he struggled to stay healthy.

That has all changed this season. Kepler has avoided the disabled list while consistently flashing nearly every skill that he occasionally showed glimpses of in the past, hitting .326/.411/.544 at Double-A as a 22-year-old. Kepler leads the Southern League in OPS among all hitters with at least 250 plate appearances and the only hitter within 40 points of his .955 mark is Sano, at .918. It may seem like Kepler has been around forever, but he won’t turn 23 until next spring.

Kepler is hitting .326 compared to the league average of .254 and his .955 OPS is more than 250 points above the league mark. He’s drawn 46 walks in 86 games while striking out just 51 times. He’s gone 16-of-19 stealing bases. And while his seven home runs are modest, he’s smacked 26 doubles and 11 triples for a total of 44 extra-base hits in 86 games. For some context, consider that Brian Dozier leads the Twins with 56 extra-base hits in 109 games.

Kepler is hitting for average, power and with patience while controlling the strike zone against much older, more experienced pitchers and adding value on the bases. He’s batting .320 versus righties and .323 versus lefties, .316 at home and .325 on the road. And while he’s no longer considered a viable long-term center field option in the big leagues, the Twins don’t really need that anyway, and Kepler figures to be a plus defender in left field or right field.

So when will Kepler arrive in Minnesota and where will he play once he gets there? That’s where it gets tricky. For as great as he’s been this season, Kepler has played just 86 career games above Single-A and is a year removed from hitting .264/.333/.393. Beyond that, the Twins’ outfield is already crowded enough that Byron Buxton was demoted to Triple-A — where he joins Oswaldo Arcia — so Aaron Hicks, Eddie Rosario, and Torii Hunter could continue to play every day.

Even if the Twins avoid the temptation to re-sign Hunter for another season at age 40, they’ll still have Buxton, Hicks, Rosario, and Arcia as potential 26-and-under starting outfielders for 2016 and that could leave Kepler with an extended stay at Triple-A. He’s already on the 40-man roster, so a call-up could come any time. Spending September with the Twins seems possible, but right now at least Kepler doesn’t have a clear path to sticking in Minnesota.

Of course, given Hicks’ career-long inability to hit right-handed pitchers, he’s probably best suited for a part-time role, while Buxton in center field, flanked in the corners by lefty hitters Rosario and Kepler, would create plenty of platooning opportunities and excellent defense. Whatever the case, Kepler’s breakout season has thrust him toward the top of the Twins’ prospect pile, and he now looks capable of being a long-term building block beginning as soon as next season.

For a lot more about how the Twins’ outfield will look in 2016 and beyond check out this week’s “Gleeman and The Geek” episode.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 08/12/2015 - 12:49 pm.

    The white elephant

    In the room is the incumbent first baseman. Sano, Keppler, Vargas are all better options for winning now and in the future than Mauer at this point in his career. And if he was being paid 3 million, rather than 23 million he would be on the bench trying to hang on to a job as the new guys got a chance to act like corner infielders: hit with power. Time to tell Joe: you can catch or retire. Announcing “he will never catch again” was a huge mistake: he should at least be back there part time as the back up. And three more years after this….

  2. Submitted by Jackson Cage on 08/12/2015 - 01:23 pm.

    Completely agree Edward

    The Mauer contract will go down as one of the biggest mistakes in Twins history. On a different note, if Hicks is keeping either Buxton or Keppler off the field, then something is seriously wrong.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/12/2015 - 04:40 pm.

    Sad to say, I’m inclined to agree

    …with both Edward and Jackson. Joe Mauer seems a good guy, and a decent player, but he’s also the poster child for why long-term (i.e., longer than, say, 2 years, 3 at the most) contracts simply do not make sense in the bizarro world of professional baseball.

    Athletic careers, as has been proven many, many times, in virtually every professional sport, can end in an instant, sometimes through no fault of the athlete involved. Tying up millions of dollars for a .250-hitting first baseman is baseball lunacy, and in the process, money that could be better used for player development, trade or purchase of other prospects like Kepler, or even better, for reliable pitching, is unavailable. The deal is done, and legally binding, so there’s little to be gained by the proverbial crying over spilled milk, but Terry Ryan should lose his job no more than 24 hours after the next expensive, long-term contract is signed with a Twins player. It should never, ever, happen again. If they won’t sign for 2 years for multiple millions of dollars, even when we privately assure them on bended knee that we hope they play their entire career in a Twins uniform, the team should shake their hand, tell them we’ve enjoyed their company and their effort while with the club, hand them their unconditional release if we can’t trade them, and wish them success with their new team, whatever team that might happen to be.

  4. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 08/13/2015 - 09:45 am.

    Well, sort of….

    Being at Target Field in 2010 was A LOT OF FUN. We all (almost all) want to see a competitive team on the field again. To attain that, offering long term contracts to the future likes of Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton will be a necessity. And when those contracts are made their will always be the risk that they simply do not work out. Joe Mauer is the poster child for this. The Twins are in the bottom ten for results on the field the last 4 years and in the top ten for profitability to the team’s owners (according to Forbes). They have made money disproportionate to their on field capabilities. They need to put Mauer’s money aside and make decisions that are best for the team: if there is a better option at first base like Sano at third, Plouffe at first, Vargas or Hunter as DH and a Hicks/Rosario/Buxton OF they need to do it. Joe can be the highest paid utility player in league history: some at first, some as DH and SOME BEHIND THE PLATE. The current “Emperor Joe Has No Clothes” approach is not sustainable through the 2018 season.

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