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.