Minnesota Twins: What Should the Twins do with Max Kepler?

Max Kepler of the Minnesota Twins advances to second base after hitting a double against the Milwaukee Brewers in the fourth inning of the game at Target Field on August 27, 2021 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Twins defeated the Brewers 2-0. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)
Max Kepler of the Minnesota Twins advances to second base after hitting a double against the Milwaukee Brewers in the fourth inning of the game at Target Field on August 27, 2021 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Twins defeated the Brewers 2-0. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images) /

Let me take you back to 2019; Max Kepler, newly into his 5-year, $35 million extension with the Minnesota Twins he signed that February, had the finest season of his young career, slashing .252/.336/.519 with 36 HRs. He wasn’t just great with the bat either, adding 6 DRS and 12.7 UZR, combining for a 4.5 fWAR in the field.

This kind of production got him down-ballot MVP votes, and his contract was beginning to look like a bargain. Fast-forward a few years, and he’s coming off an average campaign, posting a subpar .719 OPS and 1.9 fWAR. He had a career-high 10 stolen bases but couldn’t tap into his power, belting only 19 round-trippers with just a .413 SLG.

It was the second consecutive season in which he failed to display the offensive output he showed in ’19, producing a .760 OPS in 2020.Where did all of his offense go? There’s a pretty glaring answer.

If you take one look at his splits, he had a solid .796 OPS and 114 wRC+ against right-handers this past season. If you compare that to his .509 OPS and 43 wRC+ off of southpaws, he looks like a completely different hitter. He was even worse the year before against lefties, slashing a putrid .128/.208/.170, good for a 5 wRC+.

This kind of dreadful production against left-handers wasn’t always the case. From his debut in 2015 until 2019, he had a combined .680 OPS against them. That number still isn’t great, but it’s far better than what he’s shown recently and it probably plays in right field. In 2019, he was actually better when facing the same hand (130 wRC+ off of left-handers versus a 119 wRC+ off of right-handers).

But as the saying goes, what have you done for me lately? And lately, he’s become a liability with a lefty on the mound, even being forced into a platoon with Rob Refsnyder for part of last season. Now that the Minnesota Twins removed Refsnyder from the 40-man roster, it would be smart for Rocco Baldelli to find a new platoon mate, even if they’re merely average against southpaws.

Kyle Garlick would’ve made a lot of sense given his career .258/.298/.567 slash line versus lefties, but like Refsnyder, the 29-year old was outrighted off the 40-man. So we must look elsewhere for a platoon option.

With the Minnesota Twins roster the way it is, Byron Buxton is locked in at center (assuming he doesn’t get moved), Trevor Larnach probably starts in left, and Alex Kirilloff is the anticipated DH. I’d also have Luis Arraez, who played 27 games in the outfield in ’21, starting at second base. That leaves Jake Cave, Gilberto Celestino, Brent Rooker, and Nick Gordon as the only other players capable of manning the outfield on the 40-man.

I’m going to cross off Cave right away. He was as bad as you can get with a lefty on the mound last year, managing an unbelievable -41 wRC+ in 41 at-bats and a career 52 wRC+ in those situations. Celestino didn’t see much action with the Twins in 2021, playing just 23 games, and he’s only 22 and didn’t look ready to face big-league pitching, hitting .136 with a .466 OPS.

Rooker has shown signs of being a plus offensive player in the minors, but owns a modest .212/.299/.413 slash line in 65 career games. He has pretty even splits, posting a .700 OPS and 97 wRC+ against southpaws, but he’s dreadful in the field, costing the team 11 runs in just over 340 innings during his time with the Minnesota Twins, according to DRS.

Lastly, there’s Gordon. He made his debut last year, appearing in 73 games while hitting .240 with a poor .647 OPS. He doesn’t have much of an offensive ceiling and isn’t a natural outfielder. Additionally, he showed trouble hitting lefties, producing a .521 OPS and 46 wRC+.

There’s also the option of moving Kirilloff from DH and into the outfield while an infielder takes Kepler’s spot in the lineup. Unfortunately, the bench for next season is a bit murky right now, as Gordon is the only infielder that’s almost guaranteed to make the opening day roster.

If Jose Miranda gets the call early in the season, I would expect him to take over second base. In that case, Luis Arraez becomes an option, but he faces a similar problem as he’s put up just a .662 OPS against lefties throughout his career.

Most of these candidates wouldn’t justify a platoon. Before a few days ago, the best choices would’ve been Garlick or Refsnyder. But now I think the only option moving forward, assuming the roster remains unchanged on the offensive side, is to slot Rooker, a lefty killer compared to the others, at designated hitter.

This would necessitate Kirilloff moving to the outfield occasionally, which is fine considering the youngster can mostly handle himself in the field, something that can’t be said for Rooker. Even though this isn’t the most enticing platoon, it would still offer more value than no platoon at all.

Although Kepler’s still a plus fielder (4 DRS and 4.1 UZR in 2021), that doesn’t negate his lifeless at-bats against lefties and history shows that platooning works. The Rays and Giants are good examples of teams that got the most out of their respective lineups using that strategy this past season.

This isn’t a slight advantage, either. Rooker’s career .700 OPS looks incredible when you put it next to Kepler’s 2021 mark of .509 with a left-hander on the mound. If the Minnesota Twins want to compete, they need to continue platooning Kepler, either with Rooker or an offseason acquisition.

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