One of the Twins’ best front-office decisions was signing Max Kepler to a five-year, $35 million contract in February of 2019 that locked up the German-born outfielder’s services through 2024.
Kepler lived up to his contract and then some last season, posting career highs in batting average (. 252), on-base percentage (. 336), slugging percentage (.519), hits (132), home runs (36), RBI (90) and runs scored (98).
He was able to post those stats despite lingering shoulder and chest injuries throughout most of September that really limited him in the postseason, when he went 0-for-10 in three games against the Yankees in the American League Division Series.
Kepler explained how he rehabilitated the injury in the offseason.
“I saw a physical therapist, multiple, and just tried to get the healthiest in the quickest way possible,” he said last week while in town for TwinsFest at Target Field. “I had to strengthen it, and then just find my mobility back, flexibility, and just did a lot of rehab and physical training.”
Would he call himself 100% now? “I would say so,” Kepler said.
The 26-year-old, who finished 20th in MVP voting last season, also spent a good chunk of the offseason in Germany promoting baseball.
“I got to go back home,” Kepler said. “I did a clinic for kids, just trying to push the game to the next level in Germany. Then I traveled a little bit, saw my family, spent some time with friends. I improved my game. I got better, stronger.”
Kepler said when he was coming out of Germany as an amateur international prospect, he had 15 clubs after him to sign a deal.
The Twins signed him in 2009, and he said many people told him this franchise could be the right place for him.
“I knew of some players that had played for the Twins and they told me good things about the organization,” Kepler said. “I trusted in my friends and teammates, and just the good things I heard about the organization.”
But when it comes to players reaching the majors out of Germany in the future, he said it has to improve little by little.
“Let’s start with minor leagues,” Kepler said. “We have some guys coming, but you have to get through the minor leagues first. That is the true test for them.”
Kepler said he was excited by the free-agent signing of third baseman Josh Donaldson, which will make their powerful lineup even better.
“He is going to do some damage,” Kepler said. “He is a well-established player, and the sky is the limit. I look forward to playing with him.”
The Twins won 101 games last season and hit 307 homers, a major league record, but Kepler said the players and coaching staff were really just focused on keeping the game simple, not on trying to hit the ball out of the park.
“We just played small-ball, trying to put the ball in play,” he said. “I guess when you do small things, big things happen sometimes.”
So while the team might not hit as many home runs in 2020, the hope is that with Donaldson and the return of a healthy Byron Buxton, the team can be even more dangerous top to bottom in the batting order.
“Health is the most important thing in the world,” Kepler said, talking about Buxton’s expected return. “I mean, he is a phenomenal baseball player, so he would definitely do a lot, contributing to the team, if he is healthy.”
With Buxton missing 75 games last season because of various injuries, including season-ending surgery on his left shoulder in September, Kepler played 79 games in right field, 56 in center in Buxton’s spot and two as a designated hitter.
Kepler said he doesn’t mind playing anywhere on the field this season.
“I will play anywhere they want me to play,” Kepler said. “Center field is fun. I think it’s the easiest spot in the outfield; you just have to cover more ground. But if Byron is back, that is his spot and he deserves to play there.
“Playing with Buck, playing with Eddie [Rosario in left field], that is who I grew up with playing in the minors. We’re most comfortable playing together, and I look forward to playing in that trio again.”
New goals, coaches
Does he think this club has what it takes to repeat as American League Central champs?
“I don’t think we’re looking for a repeat,” Kepler said. “I think we’re just looking for a good season with a lot of health, happiness and a lot of won ballgames.”
He also said that because bench coach Derek Shelton is now the Pirates manager and hitting coach James Rowson became the offensive coordinator of the Marlins, there will be a different feel in the dugout.
“It reminds you that this sport is still a business,” Kepler said. “I wish the best to all of them in their new positions and congratulations. But now it’s time to build relationships with the guys we have and have some fun.
“I’ll miss everyone we had last year. We had a great squad and built a bunch of memories together and good relationships. I’m going to miss everyone that left the team.”
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