GLENDALE, Ariz.—Desert Dogs first baseman Max Kepler comes from a background unlike any other member of the Arizona Fall League. The 20-year-old Twins farmhand, whose parents are both long-time professional ballet dancers, was born and raised in Berlin, Germany, and spent his formative years playing on some of Germany's better club teams.
Kepler signed in 2009 for $800,000, at the time the largest bonus paid to a European position player, and at the age of 16 reported to Minnesota's training facility in Fort Myers, Fla. He finished high school in Florida while at the same time participating in his first Instructional League with the Twins. It was a unique experience that saw him going to classes early in the morning before walking across the street to the Twins facility for his daily baseball lessons.
"I didn't really spread the word that I played pro baseball," Kepler said about his time in high school, "but it got out and I just kept it on the low because I didn't want to cause a scene or anything. I just wanted to go there and finish school, and then go across the street and play baseball. But it was a good experience. American schools are a lot different than German schools, and it was fun."
Kepler played his first official season in 2010 with the Twins' Rookie-level Gulf Coast League team, followed by two seasons at Rookie-level Elizabethton of the Appalachian League. He really took off in his second Appy League season, batting .297/.387/.539 with 10 home runs in 59 games and leading the league in slugging percentage. Kepler recently completed his first year at the full-season level, batting .237/.312/.424 for low Class A Cedar Rapids during a year in which he didn't get on the field until June 20 because of an early season elbow injury.
The Twins assigned Kepler, who has spent most of his career in the outfield, to the Arizona Fall League this year primarily to get more experience at first base. But his six weeks in the desert will also give Kepler a chance to face better pitching than he's seen to date, according to Glendale manager Jeff Smith, the Twins' Double-A manager with their New Britain affiliate during the regular season.
"He's a tremendous athlete," Smith said, "but the big thing with Max coming out to the Fall League is it's his first test above A-ball . . . just to get acclimated to the pitching, the speed of the game and just being aggressive in all aspects of the game."
Kepler has had a good approach at the plate as a pro, consistently drawing his fair share of walks compared to the number of times he strikes out. He said that he doesn't like to strike out and has always made it a high priority to have a good two-strike approach.
"I just try to choke up on the bat when it gets down to two strikes and put the ball in play," Kepler said, "because striking out to me is, for a choice of better words, degrading . . . being called a perfectionist at times, I just can't stand striking out."
While he's expected to continue to see time in the outfield corners, the move to first base puts pressure on Kepler to develop more over-the-fence power. To that effect, he plans to work in the offseason on his conditioning, especially strengthening his legs.
"As he keeps getting bigger, you can already see the ball starting to drive," Smith said, "you can already see the ball starting to go out of the ballpark with backspin . . . As he keeps working, his swing gets shorter and he's really getting the ability to drive the ball to all fields. It's exciting to watch."
Kepler's parents deserve at least partial credit for their offspring's obvious athleticism, often sharing with Max lessons they've learned in their demanding field of ballet.
"My dad would always show me how to stretch after a tough game," Kepler said, "and I'd say I got the flexibility from them. They would work on whatever they could with me and try to translate from what they had in ballet to whatever field I was on back then. I was always one of the fittest kids on the team when I was younger, and I had a lot of stamina because they told me how to pace myself."
The Twins have taken it slow with Kepler’s development pace, but because he signed a 2009 contract, Kepler has to be protected on the 40-man roster this November or be exposed to the Rule 5 draft. He’s not the usual Rule 5 target, considering he’s never played above low Class A, and a lost year of at-bats certainly would hinder his development, but other clubs will be evaluating him in the AFL to see if he has the skills to perhaps survive a year in the majors.
He appears mature enough to handle such a challenge. Kepler's excellent makeup and dedication to his craft are also traits acquired from his father, a native of Poland, and his U.S.-born mother. Having worked with the young player since he first arrived in Florida four years ago, Smith has watched Kepler continue to develop both physically and mentally.
"He's gone from a 16-year-old to looking like a man right now," Smith said. "But the one thing he's never lost is you can't find a better person, and a better kid, and a better makeup—everything. He's the same kid he was then with maturity added to that."
• Scottsdale Scorpion catcher Peter O'Brien (Yankees) won the inaugural Bowman Hitting Challenge at Salt River Fields on Saturday night, topping 29 other contestants representing each of the 30 Major League organization in a rather unique home run derby event. Alex Dickerson (Pirates) tallied the second most points of the night.
• Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard was inducted into the Arizona Fall League Hall of Fame on Wednesday night at Scottsdale Stadium. The 35th former AFL player or manager to be honored, Howard was in attendance to receive his Hall of Fame plaque presented by former baseball executive Roland Hemond, considered the original architect of the Arizona Fall League.
• Surprise outfielder Kelly Dugan (Phillies) suffered an injury (turf toe) before getting into an AFL game and was replaced on the Saguaros roster by Cameron Perkins.