Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Just How Good Is Max Kepler?

When you have a farm system as stacked as the Minnesota Twins boast, you're bound to have a handful of prospects vying for recognition. 2015 was Miguel Sano's time to shine, and 2016 will see the spotlight cast on names such as Byron Buxton and Jose Berrios. Not lost in the shuffle however, there's a German born prospect that's ready for the bright lights. Enter Max Kepler.

After making his debut in September for the Twins last season, Kepler is focused on getting to the next level for good. Name the Twins minor league hitter of the year, Kepler owned a .318/.410/.520 slash line across 118 minor league contests a season ago. He also launched nine home runs while tripling 13 times. Calling it a breakout campaign would no doubt be selling the situation short.

In the field, Kepler was plenty impressive as well. A natural outfielder with legit speed, he showed his versatility starting 36 games at first base. With a .994 fielding percentage in over 300 innings at first, Kepler played the position as smoothly as possible. Spending 63 games in the outfield, Kepler has the potential to play all three spots above average. Most comfortable in center, Kepler's arm strength and ability also bodes well in the corner spots.

For the Twins, how Kepler fits in will somewhat depend on what current big leaguers end up being able to stick. On Opening Day, Byron Buxton will be flanked by Miguel Sano and Eddie Rosario. The former is venturing into new territory having never played outfield before, while the latter is going to face an uphill battle replicating his offensive success. No doubt the Twins will do everything they can to find Sano time in the field, so him making things work is of the utmost importance. For Rosario, a better approach at the plate will be key to him unlocking continued playing time. Behind the starters, neither Oswaldo Arcia nor Danny Santana appear in real contention to take playing time from a ready Kepler.

You could most likely make the argument that there is a true non-zero chance Kepler makes the Twins out of spring training. He's already on the 40 man roster, and was given his cup of coffee a season ago. A torrid spring will likely have the Twins taking a long look at the possibility, not unlike the situation with Eddie Rosario out of Fort Myers a season ago. At the end of the day though, the likeliest outcome is that Kepler heads back to the farm.

What is not to be lost in the situation, is what lies ahead for the German native. Expecting the Twins to rely on Kepler, likely to a heavy extent, at some point in the upcoming year is not far fetched. Steamer currently has Kepler projected to play just over 50 games for Minnesota and that number may actually be low. Whether a by-product of a 25 man fallout, or another strong season in the minor leagues, Kepler is going to force his way into the Twins plans in short order.

Minnesota has had significant conviction behind Kepler for quite some time. He was signed as a 17 year-old and has been a name brought up throughout the organization since the day he turned pro. Now just 22, the blossoming of ability is starting to take a more certain shape. Although not of the pedigree that Buxton possesses, it's more than fair to argue Kepler is not far off.

As the Twins transition to making Kepler a regular, he has all the makings of a possible All Star. Competing at that level year in and year out remains to be seen. Thus far in Kepler's career, his largest detractor has been staying healthy. Going off of his plus hit tool as well as speed and defense, a consistent on field presence could lend him to be a 3.0 fWAR player for the Twins or better. Should Buxton turn into the elite player he has been billed as, Minnesota could very possibly have their 1b to Buxton's 1a in Kepler.

For some time, plenty of national outlets have taken note of Kepler's ability, but 2015 gave things new steam. Expect a final promotion to come at some point in the upcoming year, and seeing Kepler take off and run with it should be the assumption. Two All Star types in the outfield is something that Minnesota has not had for quite some time, and the indication now is that it could be something experienced for years to come.

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