There were more than just two names attached to that future, but to be sure the prospects most often mentioned were Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano.
Buxton and Sano. Sano and Buxton.
And then on a night when Sano was benched for his recent struggles and a struggling Buxton was out with (another) nagging injury, the slender, young (and even younger looking) outfielder from Germany continued to steal the hearts of Twins fans.
Max Kepler has been mentioned among the wave of players to watch, but he’s also remained somewhat of a mystery even as he climbed the ranks. We’ve known Sano’s story and we’ve watched seemingly every move of Buxton’s rise. With Kepler, we’ve seemed to figure him out as he’s figured out major league pitching.
And there’s a lot to see.
Kepler smashed three home runs against Cleveland on Monday — line drives, as is his style — giving him 14 for the season. And 11 of those homers have come in the last 25 games — a stunning pace for anyone, let alone a rookie who never hit more than 10 homers in any minor league season.
More than just the home runs is the way he puts together at bats. He strikes out once every five plate appearances, which is acceptable these days. He’s walked one out of every 10, showing off an approach that is patient. And when he gets a pitch in his zone, he attacks.
Add it up, and the question needs to be asked: is Kepler, who was barely used in April, went back to the minors and returned for good at the start of June, in the conversation for AL Rookie of the Year?
The answer has to be yes.
After Monday’s outburst, he leads American League rookies in homers with 14. Among players with enough at-bats to be considered, he’s second in OPS behind Cleveland’s Tyler Naquin. Texas outfielder Nomar Mazara has the most at-bats among AL rookies and has put together a very nice season as well. Among pitchers, Detroit’s Michael Fulmer has to be at the top of those under consideration (2.50 ERA in 16 starts).
But yes, Kepler is in that mix. It’s worth noting that when I asked this question a year ago about Miguel Sano, there were two stars-in-the-making who were in contention: Carlos Correa (the Houston shortstop who won) and Francisco Lindor (the Cleveland shortstop who finished second). Sano ended up a distant third.
This year’s race doesn’t feature anyone quite in that territory, meaning it’s wide open over the next two months. And yes, a lot can change in that time. Remember: early on, it was a different Twins slugger (Byung Ho Park) who was getting a lot of early talk as a ROY candidate. Now he’s in the minors.
At the very least, Kepler is already a top-five AL rookie. We’ll just have to wait and see what the young Twins outfielder’s next move is.