The Twins’ decision to sign Max Kepler to a five-year, $35 million contract this offseason is looking like one of the smartest moves the team has made in some time. Kepler is putting it all together, yet is still only 26.
He is now under contract with the club through 2024, when he will be 31.
Kepler, who said he is happy he signed the extension with the Twins in the offseason, is posting career highs in batting average (.262), on-base percentage (.333), slugging percentage (.537) and on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.870) heading into Wednesday’s game in Miami. Incredibly, he already has career highs in home runs (29) and RBI (73) in his first 99 games this season, after belting another homer against the Marlins on Wednesday.
When asked if he can keep his power numbers up, Kepler said it’s all about the process at the plate.
“Just try and put the ball in play, keep it simple,” he said. “I’m just trying to improve my game with each day. Stay in the present and just progress.”
When it comes to playing high-profile games — such as their recent series with the Yankees and their Aug. 8-11 series with Cleveland at Target Field — Kepler said he can’t change his approach just because of who he is facing.
“For me, personally, no,” he said. “Because I look at each team as every other team, because otherwise I think I would alter my performance and my effort. It’s the same for pitchers. I don’t think about who it is. I look at their stuff, study them, and then go out there and try to give it my best shot, without putting a name to who that is or what team that is or what their status is. It gives me a better chance to perform.”
One of the biggest challenges for the Twins this season has been keeping their outfielders healthy. With Byron Buxton (concussion) returning last week, the trio of Kepler, Buxton and Eddie Rosario are finally back together on the field.
There’s no doubt the Twins are a different club with all of those players healthy.
Kepler said having Buxton back in center field is a big positive because he can transition back to his natural spot in right.
“It’s not easy [playing center],” he said. “Buck makes it look really easy. Every time I transition to center, I feel my legs a little more, they get heavier the first couple of games.”
Rare European star
Recently ESPN ran a big profile of Kepler with the headline, “Twins’ Max Kepler leading baseball’s charge into Europe.” With Major League Baseball starting to feature games in London, the German-born Kepler could have real marketability overseas in the future.
In the article, Jim Small — MLB’s senior vice president for international — said Kepler is an important player to help cultivate more baseball fans in Europe.
“Having heroes like Max Kepler is huge for us,” Small said. “They’re the fertilizer that will help us continue to grow the sport. We’re not where we want to be, but when you consider where we once were in Europe, we’re definitely making progress.”
The Twins made one of the great finds in franchise history when scout Andy Johnson discovered Kepler in Germany as a 14-year-old, and he might prove to be one of baseball’s biggest stars if the game takes off in Europe.
Twins at the deadline
Seemingly everyone agreed the Twins’ bullpen needed some help. So you have to give the front office of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine credit for going out and getting two well-respected relievers in Sergio Romo and Sam Dyson at the trade deadline.
Among Twins pitchers appearing in five or more games this season, Dyson’s 2.47 ERA with the Giants would rank second behind Taylor Rogers (2.22). Romo’s 3.58 ERA that he brought over from the Marlins would have ranked fourth.
These are smart moves, and the Twins didn’t risk any of their best minor league prospects in getting some real help in a key area.
Whether or not those two relievers will help the Twins to a division crown or a World Series title remains to be seen, but it is worth remembering that the Twins’ World Series winners in 1987 and 1991 took different approaches at the trade deadline.
The ’87 squad made two key deadline trades. They sent minor league pitcher Enrique Rios to Boston for Don Baylor and also acquired Dan Schatzeder, who would throw 8⅔ innings with a 3.12 ERA in the postseason (and win Game 6 of the World Series against the Cardinals in relief), from the Phillies for infielder Tom Schwarz and pitcher Danny Clay. Baylor had only 49 regular-season at-bats, but he hit .385 (5-for-13) in the series and went 2-for-3 with a two-run, game-tying homer in the fifth inning in Game 6 at the Metrodome.
But the ’91 team didn’t make a single move at the deadline, despite holding only a slim lead over the White Sox in the American League West.
PFF not high on O-line
Pro Football Focus spent a lot of time this month ranking offensive and defensive units in the NFC North, and some of their predictions were surprising.
You have to wonder how much PFF really knows when it comes to rating offensive line players, but their rankings put the Vikings at 25th in the NFL. The Packers rank ninth overall.
The Packers are expected to start David Bakhtiari at left tackle, Lane Taylor at left guard, Corey Linsley at center, Billy Turner at right guard and Bryan Bulaga at right tackle. That group has a combined 327 career starts.
The Vikings’ expected starters of Riley Reiff at left tackle, Pat Elflein at left guard, Garrett Bradbury at center, Josh Kline at right guard and Brian O’Neill at right tackle have a combined 199 starts.
The Packers were so solid last year that the only player they added to the group was Turner, who received a four-year, $28 million contract. Turner, who was a third-round pick out of North Dakota State by the Dolphins in 2014, was one of the best available free agents in 2019 and the Packers had an immediate opening for him.
The Vikings, on the other hand, could only make minor changes through free agency because of their salary cap and brought in Kline on a three-year, $15.5 million deal. That’s why the Vikings thought it was so important to draft North Carolina State’s Garrett Bradbury with their first-round pick (No. 18 overall), and that’s why he will be starting at center.
The simple fact is this: the Vikings’ entire offensive line has been rebuilt in the past three seasons. They added Reiff and Elflein in 2017, O’Neill in 2018 and Bradbury and Kline this season.
They could still succeed, but they are going to be a brand-new unit, compared to a more veteran Packers line.
Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. on Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. on Friday and at 10 a.m. on Sundays. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org