The Minnesota Twins have been known for years as having one the top minor league systems in all of baseball. Developing talent from within rather than spending big on the free agent market or making blockbuster-type trades. Players like Torii Hunter, Denard Span, Kirby Puckett, and Kent Hrbek come to mind when mentioning Twins’ system success stories. Knowing their minor league system and coaching staff are one of their biggest strengths in the organization, Terry Ryan and Bill Smith have and had been dipping their hands into the international pool in hopes of garnering another future successful “system player”.
In recent memory, high-projecting players like Miguel Sano, Oswaldo Arcia, and Eddie Rosario have all been successful international signings thus far and are expected to be making Major League impacts in the next few seasons. When most people think of international signings, their attention is generally brought to Latin American players from Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico and the like; but not many would consider Europe as a desirable place for scouting players. Contrary to popular belief, Europe, especially the Netherlands and Germany, is producing young talent thanks to an uprising in baseball academies. Because of the growing popularity of baseball across the pond (Atlantic Ocean) the Twins sent scout Andy Johnson to Europe to view and diagnose talent. Thankfully they sent Johnson because he was the scout who discovered Max Kepler of Germany.
Max, or Maximilian Kepler – how I would much rather his professional name be – was first discovered by Johnson when Kepler was just 14. The tall, lanky outfielder made quite an impression right away with his arm and natural fluidity while running. In an interview with Twinsbaseball.com, Johnson recollects how and why he pursued Kepler from such a young age.
Kepler’s natural athleticism is derived from a unique background that is uncommon to the sport of baseball, or any sport for that matter. Both of his parents were former stars of the Berlin ballet and because of his parent’s career choices, Kepler’s gene pool is that of grace, balance, and pure, natural athleticism. Many professional ball players have athletic parents which give their athleticism to their child, but having two professional ballet parents is quite an opportunity for athletic greatness from birth.
Taking advantage of his natural-born gift, Kepler started playing baseball more often than his school’s eight-week program offered. The motions of the sport were so simple for him and as he developed, those skills started translating into impressive play in the field. Other teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Cubs were all pursuing the talented, then 14-year-old, but with his parent’s guidance, the Kepler’s decided the Twins were the best option for him and he signed a $775,000 bonus at age 16.
At age 17, Kepler started his professional career by playing in the Gulf Coast League where he held his own at such a young age. Playing in only 37 games, Kepler struggled for power yet still amassed a good .286 batting average. The following season he made his rookie league debut for the Elizabethton Twins and again stayed consistent with a slash line of .262/.347/.366 in 50 games. The low slugging percentage, on paper, seemed to be a cause for concern for the tall, 6’3″ 175 lb., young player but scouts and coaches were not too worried because of his smooth, sweet swing that he possessed from the left side of the plate. Plus, having such a scrawny build at age 18 they knew he had plenty of growing to do.
Once he started his second season in Elizabethton, Kepler’s power was first tapped into. He hit 10 home runs and batted .297/.387/.539 in his 59 games played. His slugging percentage increased over 170 points in one season and answered the questions of if he was going to start hitting for more power. Because of this season, and of the weight he was able to put on (now up to 215 and creeping up on 6’4″), Kepler is now projecting as that powerful, gap-type hitter who can hit lefties or righties – already consistent against both types of pitchers equally – as he matures.
With many scouts comparing his overall play, but especially his swing, to Shawn Green, Major League success could very well be in his future. In an interview with international sports website, www.heinnews.com, Kepler is asked who he would like to emulate as a future Minnesota Twin:
I’d say Justin Upton. Good player. Ryan Braun’s good too. They’re just good players all around. Upton has a great arm, great swing. He’s big too – kind of everything I want to be in the future… and Josh Hamilton from the left side
A Ryan Braun, Justin Upton, or Josh Hamilton in the outfield for the Twins? I will take that any day. Kepler also projects his eventual size to hopefully max out in the 240-245 range, which will keep his speed and provide an excellent frame for pop off the bat.
Aside from his potential for slugging the ball all over Target Field, Kepler contains a real impressive weapon in his arm. He uses his length to really garner some zip on his throws from the outfield, and when asked which position he would prefer playing as he continues on progressing, Kepler mentions the use of his arm as a deciding factor:
Depends, it’s all about staying healthy and keeping my arm strong in the outfield. I’m mostly known to have a good arm in the outfield. But when you get tired and stuff you have to keep that arm healthy. Sometimes I was just tired last season (referencing move from center field to left), that’s why I was in left field. I had some arm problems. But I hope to be in right though because I like using my arm.
As far as I am concerned, play him wherever he wants as long as he stays healthy and confident. Sometimes the best way to break out of any slump at the plate is making a big throw to get a guy out at home or third base.
Projection: Max Kepler is an excellent specimen to keep an eye on; he has the height, the projected frame, and the natural fluidity of motions to be one of those “effortless” players where everything looks easy on the field. An above average arm coupled with his natural athleticism, he could potentially stay in center field, but he even has mentioned how he would like to play right field so he can use his arm more often – and that does not bother me one bit. His smooth swing and ability to hit left-handed pitching at such a young age are very good signs for him moving forward. A jolt in power, 10 home runs last season compared to 1 the previous two seasons, has Twins personnel paying extra close attention to the young German in his first full season of professional ball upcoming (he has only played half seasons thus far). The determination to get better and his natural ability have myself, and hopefully all of Twins-nation salivating over the potential this kid can bring as he matures through the system. Despite the current log-jam in the Twins organization at outfield, I expect Kepler to rise to the top of the talent pool and make a Target Field appearance in 2015 and remain in the lineup for the 2016 season and beyond.
As Jason Statham mockingly describes in this Scene from the movie “Snatch”: perhaps his chum Tommy should not be the only one afraid of “Zee Germans”, yeah, I am talking to you American League pitchers.