FORT MYERS, FLA. — The word struck Max Kepler like a fastball to the ribs. He raised his eyebrows, made a face and theatrically gestured with his head toward new teammate Carlos Santana, standing two lockers away.

But when the laughs died down, Kepler acknowledged his new status in the Twins clubhouse, and even used the dreaded "o" word.

"Yeah, I'm old, I guess — in terms of my stint with this organization," the right fielder hastened to add. "I wouldn't say I'm the oldest in here yet, [but] compared to all the young'uns I'm around, yeah, I'm getting up there."

He's up to 31 as of this month, far from old, even for a ballplayer. But Kepler is entering his 16th season as a Twins employee, and he's been on the big-league roster, aside from a brief rehab assignment, since June 1, 2016, longer than anyone else in the clubhouse. It's made Kepler a little reflective about his journey and all the people he's met on it.

"As a player who's been around so long, you get to see different types of waves of people come through here. Staff, players, even reporters, you know. You see a lot of different angles that this business throws at you," Kepler said. "I'm grateful to be here, I'm thankful to be here. And yeah, sadly without Polo [Jorge Polanco], sadly without [Nick] Gordon, sadly without Sonny [Gray], sadly without those guys who have moved on to the next opportunity. But it is a business, and you've got to be grateful for any opportunity and you've got to make the most of it while you can. So I'm happy to be here. I wouldn't say I'm surprised, but I'm still very, very grateful for it."

So are the Twins, something that didn't always seem true. Kepler has been the object of trade rumors for a few years now, as young outfielders such as Matt Wallner and Trevor Larnach graduate to the majors and Kepler's output — and, it was whispered around Target Field, his interest — waned. There was even speculation last summer that the Twins might simply release Kepler when he reached the All-Star break with a .207 batting average and a .688 on-base plus slugging percentage.

The rumors, whispers and speculation evaporated, though, when Kepler returned from the break and embarked on what manager Rocco Baldelli calls "as good a half [season] of baseball as he's ever had in his career." After collecting only 42 hits in his first 64 games, he pounded out 72 in the next 65, hit a dozen home runs, posted a .926 OPS and arguably played the leading role in powering the Twins to an AL Central championship.

Basically, he did it by hitting the ball higher and harder than he ever had before. Kepler barreled-up 41 balls, according to StatCast, most by any Twin, and had an average exit velocity of 91.9 miles per hour, a career high and second only to Joey Gallo. He crushed fastballs, slugging .542 when he got one, and hit fly balls or line drives 56.6% of the time, another career high. And he led the Twins in home runs with 24 and RBI with 66.

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Appropriate for a guy who grew up in Europe, who travels the world every winter — he and his girlfriend visited Japan, the Philippines and Singapore this time, and even dropped in on former Twins pitcher Kenta Maeda in Tokyo — Kepler enjoyed a career Renaissance.

It was noticeable off the field, too.

"You're going to see a lot of enthusiasm when you make good adjustments and figure things out and perform well," Baldelli said. "You could see it in his eyes, in his reactions out on the field, before, during and after the game. He was happy to be playing baseball."

Can he keep that production up this year? Kepler believes so, because that newfound happiness was accompanied by newfound confidence.

"I'm just trying to believe. It's a game of adversity, and plenty of doubt comes with it. If you let that doubt creep in, it'll break you down real quick," he said. But last year, Kepler realized he should "just make the most of the at-bats and not dwell on a pitch or a prior at-bat. Just stay present and make the most of it while I can."

He has extra incentive to have a big year; his six-year, $45 million contract, which pays him a bargain $10 million this year, expires in October, and he'll be a free agent for the first time. But Kepler says that's not motivating him.

"No. I'm going to work [hard] like I always have, give it all I've got, try to be the best teammate I can be, and build relationships with the new guys and grow with the old ones," Kepler said.

And then? Kepler grows philosophical about the future, especially after saying goodbye to close friend Polanco, who was traded to the Mariners last month.

"I had my long nights where I kind of … not cried, but I was emotional about it. I made my phone calls with him," Kepler said. "I don't know what the future holds, but you've got to be strong as an individual when it comes to your feelings."