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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.
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