TwinsCentric was formed by Twins super-bloggers Seth Stohs, Nick Nelson, Parker Hageman and John Bonnes. Together they publish at TwinsDaily.com and have authored books, e-books and magazines that provide independent and in-depth coverage of the Minnesota Twins from a fan's perspective. You can contact them at TwinsCentric@gmail.com.
Age: 19 (DOB: 2/10/93)
APPY: 59 G, .297/.387/.539, 10 HR, 49 RBI, 40 R, 7/7 SB
By the time he's done playing, Max Kepler might be known as one of the greatest major-league hitters ever to come out of Europe.
And he's the tenth-best prospect for the Twins? That seems crazy. But take a look at this all-time European All-Star team that Dave Schoenfield put together a couple years ago. There are some good careers in there, but unless you're a real hardcore, you might not recognize a name other than Bert Blyleven (who lived in the Netherlands for all of two years).
Clearly, the continent hasn't been a traditional pipeline for baseball talent. But the Twins saw something they liked in the 16-year-old Kepler out of Germany, and handed him the largest bonus ever for a European ($800,000) just after the window opened for international signings in 2009.
It was a bold move made possible by an unprecedented spending spree for the Twins – one that led to Miguel Sano's signing a few months later. And while the slugging Dominican gets all the fanfare, the aggressive bid on Kepler is quickly beginning to pay dividends as well.
Kepler adjusted slowly to the professional ranks. That's understandable for a high school aged kid acclimating to a new country. But last year he turned a corner in his second turn at Elizabethton, pacing the Appalachian League with a .539 slugging percentage and markedly improving his plate discipline.
The lefty-swinging outfielder has a well rounded skill set with the abilities to run, catch and hit for both average and power. The son of two prominent ballet dancers, he's an athletically gifted kid who is already listed at 6'4" as a teenager. When he first signed with the Twins, Baseball America's Ben Badler picked up the following tidbit:
"Kepler is the toolsiest kid we've ever had in Europe," said the scout. "No question."
His emergence last year is a sign that the on-field performance may be catching up with the innate ability. When that happens to guys with such immense physical upside, stars are born.
The big numbers in E-town were eye-catching, but they came on the heels of two pedestrian efforts to launch his pro career. In 2010 Kepler posted a .689 OPS in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League and in 2011 he registered a .714 mark after stepping up to the Appy League. Between the two partial seasons, he totaled one home run while whiffing at a 22 percent rate.
As mentioned above, it's hard to hold those struggles against him because he was 17 and 18, and he blew all previous numbers out of the water last year. Still, it bears noting that he was repeating the same level and – thanks to his early start – was more experienced in the pro ranks than much of his competition.
The Bottom Line
Kepler has all the physical tools to be a quality major-league outfielder and last year at Elizabethton he backed them up with outstanding production. He remains on the fringe of our Top 10 because much uncertainty surrounds him yet, but a successful transition to full-season ball in Cedar Rapids this year would have him propelling up this list.
In recent days, the Twins have announced a few procedural moves that weren't especially surprising. Among them were the decisions to decline 2013 options for Scott Baker and Matt Capps, which would have paid $9.25 million and $6 million, respectively. With both hurlers coming off seasons severely affected by injuries, there was no incentive for the Twins to pay such a high price when they could easily negotiate a better deal in free agency.
They have already begun trying to do so with Baker, who told reporters that his side has been talking with the club and that "we're not close, but we're definitely closer than when it started."
There's been no such steam surrounding Capps, who unlike Baker actually pitched this year, although his health and effectiveness were issues for a second consecutive campaign. Even if they're not currently engaged with Capps and his agent, I wouldn't be surprised if at some point in the offseason the Twins opened a conversation to see what kind of deal could be struck. And, despite the justifiably negative connotations that surround the former closer here in Minnesota, that wouldn't necessarily be the worst idea in the world.
Capps was overpaid in 2011, when he earned $7.15 million to post a 4.25 ERA over 65 2/3 innings, converting only 15 of 24 saves while misguidedly pitching through forearm pain. He took a pay cut this year, re-signing for $4.75 million, but again proved overpaid as shoulder problems limited him to less than 30 innings.
After back-to-back disappointing seasons, Capps figures to land a reduced contract as a setup man during the offseason. And, on those terms, he's really not a terrible bet.
It bears noting that when he was healthy this year, the right-hander pitched reasonably well, posting a 3.68 ERA while allowing only 28 hits and four walks in his 29 1/3 innings of work. This continued a career-long trend of limiting baserunners, as Capps has registered a 1.19 WHIP in his seven uneven seasons as a big-leaguer. Keeping mean off base has generally been a reliable skill for him, and is a good recipe for success even when you're not able to rack up many strikeouts.
By no means is Capps a great pitcher, and after the last few seasons I'm sure most Twins fans would eagerly watch him walk off into the sunset never to return. Nevertheless, as a 29-year-old with his value as low as it's ever been, he could be a relative bargain if signed later in the offseason to a one-year deal, provided the Twins aren't tempted to pay him as – or use him as – a closer.
Today on Twins Daily:
*Seth takes a look at the winners of the 2012 Twins Diamond Awards.
* User jianfu wonders how much it's worth for the Twins to avoid multi-year contracts, particularly with a name like Dan Haren floating around.
* The community discusses Nick Blackburn's latest arm surgery.
A quick rundown of how each of my Top Ten Prospects performed during the month of May...
10. Joe Benson, OF | Class-A Ft. Myers
May Stats: .263/.364/.561, 4 HR, 11 RBI, 10 R, 4/4 SB
Season Stats: .235/.352/.469, 9 HR, 20 RBI, 30 R, 8/10 SB
After a dreadful April in New Britain, Benson seemed to be picking up the pace in May. Over his first 46 at-bats of the new month, he was hitting .283/.411/.609, going deep four times after homering just once in April. Then, mysteriously, the Twins sent Benson back down to Single-A, where he spent his entire '09 campaign. The demotion couldn't have been performance-based, as Benson was on a tear and ranked second among New Britain hitters in OPS. Whatever the reason, the young outfielder has reacted well, putting up a .925 OPS while launching four more homers over his first 13 games at Ft. Myers. Despite his low overall batting average this season (.235 between the two levels), Benson is showing a lot more power while getting on base at a strong clip. He ought to be back up at Double-A very soon.
9. Carlos Gutierrez, SP | Class-AA New Britain
May Stats: 37.2 IP, 2-2, 2.15 ERA, 24/13 K/BB, 1.14 WHIP
Season Stats: 56.2 IP, 2-3, 3.65 ERA, 40/19 K/BB, 1.32 WHIP
Last month in this space I broke down a disappointing April for Gutierrez, but pointed out his strong peripheral numbers and stated that we can "look for him to improve rapidly as the season progresses." Sure enough, Gutierrez rebounded in a big way during the month of May, cutting down immensely on his number of base runners allowed and subsequently allowing far fewer runs. He continues to induce a huge number of ground balls while missing bats at a reasonable rate, but his walk totals will be worth keeping an eye on as we move forward. As hit-prone as he tends to be, limiting the free passes will be a key ingredient in Gutierrez's future success.
8. David Bromberg, SP | Class-AA New Britain
May Stats: 26.1 IP, 1-3, 6.15 ERA, 17/19 K/BB, 2.13 WHIP
Season Stats: 50.1 IP, 2-3, 3.75 ERA, 36/25 K/BB, 1.59 WHIP
Taking the opposite path of Gutierrez, Bromberg followed up an excellent April with an absolutely disastrous May. Of all the poor numbers the righty turned in during the season's second month, none are more alarming than the gigantic walk total. His erratic tendencies have always been one of the big potential drawbacks for Bromberg, and now they seem to be manifesting. On the plus side, his overall numbers for the season still look OK thanks to his strong April and he's still only allowed one home run on the year.
7. Danny Valencia, 3B | Class-AAA Rochester
May Stats: .330/.384/.408, 0 HR, 16 RBI, 14 R, 1/1 SB
Season Stats: .298/.350/.381, 0 HR, 24 RBI, 22 R, 2/2 SB
Valencia has always been a pretty streaky hitter, so it figured that he'd follow up his disappointing month of April with a red-hot May. The third baseman did just that, batting .330 while doubling his RBI total. The power still has not emerged this year for Valencia though, as he's gone homerless over the first two months of the season and possesses a meager .381 slugging percentage. Fans have grown frustrated by the fact that Valencia is getting passed over for promotions by lesser prospects like Matt Tolbert and Luke Hughes, but don't expect to see Valencia in a Twins uniform until he begins hitting the ball with more authority and cutting down on his still-high strikeout rates.
6. Angel Morales, OF | Class-A Beloit
May Stats: .235/.328/.343, 0 HR, 12 RBI, 14 R, 6/9 SB
Season Stats: .253/.339/.404, 3 HR, 23 RBI, 23 R, 14/19 SB
The speedy center fielder saw his batting average drop off in May and the OPS came tumbling down with it. It didn't help that Morales failed to go deep after launching three homers in April, although he did continue to display his speed with six steals and four triples on the month. Morales has struck out 52 times in 166 at-bats this year, so the low batting average should come as no surprise. Much like Carlos Gomez, Morales needs to start making better contact to better utilize his athleticism.
5. Miguel Angel Sano, SS | Dominican Summer League (rookie)
May Stats: .500/.500/1.750, 1 HR, 1 RBI, 2 R, 0/0 SB
Season Stats: .500/.500/1.750, 1 HR, 1 RBI, 2 R, 0/0 SB
It certainly bears noting that the numbers above all come from one game and four at-bats; Sano joined the rookie-level DSL Twins at the end of the month and went 2-for-4 with a home run and a triple in his very first game. The homer came on the first professional pitch he saw. A great start for the hugely promising teenager.
4. Ben Revere, OF | Class-AA New Britain
May Stats: .336/.412/.429, 1 HR, 15 RBI, 15 R, 12/16 SB
Season Stats: .315/.394/.387, 1 HR, 16 RBI, 21 R, 18/23 SB
Revere did a solid job of setting the table during the season's first month, putting up a .361 on-base percentage while going 6-for-7 on stolen bases, but in May he took his game to the next level across the board. Not only did he bump his batting averge up by about 60 points, Revere also added significant power, ripping a homer, a triple and six doubles after managing just a pair of extra-base hits (both doubles) in April. He also doubled his stolen base total while getting on base at a .412 clip. With 21 walks and just 19 strikeouts on the season, Revere seems locked in and he's already positioned himself as the top call-up option in the event that the Twins suffer a major injury in the outfield.
3. Kyle Gibson, SP | Class-AA New Britain
May Stats: 26.1 IP, 3-0, 1.37 ERA, 23/5 K/BB, 0.95 WHIP
Season Stats: 69.2 IP, 7-1, 1.68 ERA, 63/17 K/BB, 1.00 WHIP
I concluded my writeup on Gibson last month by stating that the right-hander "doesn’t seem destined to spend much time with the Miracle." Just a few days later, he found himself promoted to New Britain, and his early returns at the Double-A level have been truly marvelous. Through four starts for the Rock Cats, Gibson has allowed only four earned runs over 26 1/3 innings while maintaining his outstanding strikeout and walk rates. More importantly, he's continued to induce an insane number of ground balls, limiting opponents to a .208 batting average while surrendering no home runs. He's sure to spend some more time in Double-A for now, but Gibson is pitching like he wants to see major-league action before the end of his first pro season.
2. Wilson Ramos, C | Class-AAA Rochester
May Stats: .170/.200/.264, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 2 R, 0/1 SB
Season Stats: .175/.208/.300, 4 HR, 10 RBI, 7 R, 0/1 SB
It's been an interesting season for Ramos thus far. He raised plenty of eyebrows while collecting seven hits over his first two big-league games after being called up to briefly fill in for Joe Mauer back in early May, but that performance has helped cover up a lousy performance at Triple-A this season. He was hitting just .179 with the Red Wings before being called up and has now just .170 since returning. While he's kept his strikeout rate in check, Ramos isn't walking at all (just five times in 125 plate appearances in Rochester) and his power has gone missing. A big debut at the big-league level is nice and all, but Ramos needs to turn around his season at Triple-A in order to be an enticing trade deadline chit for the Twins to dangle.
1. Aaron Hicks, OF | Class-A Beloit
May Stats: .214/.321/.313, 1 HR, 6 RBI, 14 R, 1/3 SB
Season Stats: .246/.362/.369, 4 HR, 13 RBI, 30 R, 6/12 SB
Hicks recovered from a wretched start to finish his month of April with quality numbers, but he was back in the tank in May, hitting just .214 with one home run. Hicks continues to keep his on-base percentage afloat thanks to a very good walk rate, which is encouraging, but the other aspects of his offensive game simply aren't developing. He's striking out at an alarming rate (36 times in 112 May at-bats) and isn't hitting for power. Discouraging signs for the first-round pick, considering he's spending a second year in Beloit.
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