In 2009, the Twins made one of their biggest international prospect signings when they inked Miguel Sano to a $3.15 million signing bonus out of the Dominican Republic. It was the same year they drafted righthander Kyle Gibson, who they gave a $1.8 million bonus in the first round, signed 16-year-old Max Kepler to a $775,000 bonus out of Germany and signed Jorge Polanco, also 16, to a $750,000 bonus out of the Dominican Republic.
Kepler has long been in the shadows of some of the Twins’ higher-profile prospects, especially Sano and center fielder Byron Buxton, who was drafted second overall in 2012. But Kepler’s play of late is showing he might be just as important or more to the Twins’ future as any recent prospect.
His performance this season has been better than Buxton’s and Sano’s, who got most of the media attention at spring training.
Kepler started the year at Class AAA and played only two games before he was called up after Danny Santana strained his right hamstring. Kepler was with the Twins for seven games, then sent back to Rochester for 23 games, coming back up to the Twins on June 1.
Kepler hit only .167 through his first 17 games with the Twins this season, but he has started showing the kind of hitting that made him the Southern League MVP after a breakout season hitting .322 at Class AA Chattanooga last year.
Over his past 25 games with the Twins, Kepler has hit .275 with a .350 on-base percentage, .560 slugging percentage and .910 OPS. He has 25 hits, eight doubles, six home runs, 24 RBI and 16 runs scored in 91 at-bats over that time.
Kepler said he believes it’s merely repetition that has made him into a much better player of late.
“I would say it takes time and repetition and, you know, day-to-day play makes baseball a lot easier,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I’m a lot more confident.”
Kepler’s breakout game was obviously his two-homer, seven-RBI performance against Texas on Saturday, but he has four RBI in the four games since and seems to be showing better power. He was asked if anything changed.
“I don’t know, it just happens some days,” he said. “Some days the ball squares up perfectly and some days it doesn’t. It’s just how baseball goes.”
Kepler said being sent down to Rochester for those 30 games early in the season did allow him to improve his approach.
“It definitely is a calmer process and you’re not surrounded by a bunch of fans and media that you can kind of lose your focus with,” he said. “You’re able to focus on baseball itself and simplify a lot of things, which helps if you’re struggling. So yeah, it does slow things down.”
When the Twins called him back up, Kepler said they were mainly looking for him to improve his focus on the plate.
“I would say this time around I came up and [Twins hitting coach Tom Brunansky] was happy with my mechanics,” Kepler said. “We’re more focused on my mental game right now and situational hitting, which I have to work on — what pitches to lay off and just being patient in the batter’s box, because they know I’m a young hitter and I want to attack.”
Having Kepler and Buxton in the same outfield has improved the team’s defense. Kepler has posted a .972 fielding percentage in right field with two errors and two outfield assists. He said learning the contours of Target Field is a big part of his preparation.
“Every time I get some spare time, me and [outfield coach] Butch [Davis] are out there working on balls off the wall [and] ground balls that are pretty fast in our outfield, they tend to skip and skid a little,” Kepler said. “Every time I get some time off, I’m out there. Today I’m out there throwing balls off the wall and off the hanger, just to see how it plays.”
While the Twins are mired in a difficult season, the play of Kepler — and the team winning four out of five and six of the past 10 — has been a sign that things could get better soon for this squad.
With their 4-0 victory over Oakland on Wednesday, the Twins are now 7-3 over their past 10 games at Target Field, including three consecutive series wins over Philadelphia, Texas and Oakland. The team was only 12-24 at Target Field through June 18 but now stands at 19-27 overall.
Joe Mauer went 3-for-5 on Wednesday and is hitting .438 (7-for-16) against Oakland this season and .320 in his career against the Athletics. Danny Santana has hit in four consecutive games after going 3-for-4 Wednesday and making his first start of the season at shortstop. Then there’s Robbie Grossman who went 1-for-3 and has reached base in 38 of 43 games this season. He has also drew two walks, giving him 35 on the season, which is tied with Josh Donaldson of Toronto for the most in baseball since Grossman was called up May 20.
In minor league news, Twins standout pitching prospect Jose Berrios appears to have really turned it on at Rochester. He recently was added to the International League All-Star Game roster and was named IL pitcher of the week Monday. Since being sent down on May 16, Berrios is 6-3 with a 2.82 ERA over 60⅔ innings with 60 strikeouts and an opponent’s batting average of .190. Over his past four starts, he is 3-1 with a 0.60 ERA and .104 opponents batting average over 30 innings with 29 strikeouts.
• Rhonda McFarland, hired by new Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle as deputy athletic director and chief financial officer, and John Cunningham, named deputy AD for administration, worked for Coyle at Boise State and Syracuse.
• Twins broadcaster and former star righthander Bert Blyleven will be one of 54 Hall of Famers who will be in Cooperstown, N.Y., for Hall of Fame Weekend on July 22-25.
• Las Vegas oddsmaker Jimmy Shapiro doesn’t give the Gophers football team much of a chance to win the Big Ten West when he put their odds at 14-1, with Iowa 1-1, Nebraska 2-1, Wisconsin 4-1 and Northwestern 9-1. He lists only Illinois and Purdue below the Gophers.
• Ben Gucinski, an Appleton (Wis.) Fox Valley Lutheran track star whom the Gophers have signed, cleared 7-1 in the high jump to set a Wisconsin state record.
• I read about the millions NBA teams are being paid by the various television networks. I look back to my Minneapolis Lakers days and recall how excited then-commissioner Maurice Podoloff was when he announced that Dumont, a dominant network in the 1950s, had agreed to pay $3,000 per game to show a Saturday game of the week. And who do you think called the timeouts for the commercials? Podoloff.
Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. email@example.com