No Longer A Novelty, Kepler Seeks To Make Impact

MINNEAPOLIS—After the final game of his initial season as Twins manager, Paul Molitor realized he had forgotten something.

Young right fielder Max Kepler had stroked the first hit of his major league career in the third inning of an otherwise forgettable loss to the Royals, so Molitor headed back into the home clubhouse at Target Field to commemorate the achievement.

Clutching a baseball in his right hand, a smiling Molitor worked his way toward Kepler’s locker and made the presentation with a full contingent of media in the room. The 22-year-old rookie struggled to hold back his emotions as he gave a short speech to thank his teammates, even the ones that had forced him to sing Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” for the group.

“It’s an honor to have a ball handed to you by Paul Molitor,” Kepler said later. “I’ll remember this day forever.”

How could he ever forget it?

Not only did Kepler, son of Polish and American ballet dancers, become the first player born and raised in Germany to record a hit in the major leagues, he did so by ripping a full-count slider from Johnny Cueto.

A day that began with Kepler replacing Torii Hunter in the starting lineup—at the insistence of Hunter, who would announce his retirement three weeks later—ended with the Twins’ minor league player of the year heading into his most important offseason yet with a huge load off his broad shoulders.

“This whole time I’ve been kind of suffocating,” Kepler said. “It was tough to breathe when you’re trying to get that first hit. Once I got that first hit in, I could breathe again.”

What did Kepler plan to do with the ball?

“I’m going to take it wherever I go,” he said. “That ball is going to travel with me, hopefully for a long time.”

If things go as planned, Kepler will stay with the Twins for a long time as well.

It might not happen right out of spring training, not with young slugger Miguel Sano slated to take his 268-pound frame from third base or the DH spot out to a corner outfield spot, but there is no doubt Kepler has carved out a place for himself in the Twins’ outfield of the future.

Multiple teams asked for Kepler when the surprising Twins went shopping for bullpen help in July and August, but general manager Terry Ryan made it clear the young prospect was not available.

“He looks like he belongs,” Molitor said after watching Kepler during his 12-day call-up. “He’s just got that presence. He wasn’t overwhelmed by the opportunity to play, and he fouled off some tough pitches against some really good pitchers. We’ll see what he brings next spring and see if he can get himself in the mix.”

Named Southern League MVP by managers after hitting .322/.416/.531, Kepler missed out on the All-Star Futures Game due to mild weakness in his left (throwing) shoulder. A strained left forearm caused him to open the year on the disabled list at high Class A Fort Myers, and intermittent shoulder weakness contributed to him making 31 percent of his starts (36 games) at first base.

Despite those issues, Kepler still enjoyed the sort of breakout season Twins officials had been anticipating for years. Signed out of Berlin at age 16 for $800,000 in July 2009, Kepler has worked hard to strengthen his frame and steadily smooth out the rough edges to his game. Once flummoxed by lefthanded pitching, Kepler posted an .873 OPS against lefties last season at Double-A Chattanooga. He developed a better sense of when to pull the ball and when to go the other way working with hitting coach Chad Allen, and his strike-zone judgment and pitch recognition helped him make the adjustment.

While helping the loaded Lookouts claim a league title under hard-driving manager Doug Mientkiewicz, the fourth crown in as many years for Kepler (including the 2014 Arizona Fall League), Kepler also managed to walk more than he struck out (67-63). Add in brief stints in the Florida State and American leagues, and Kepler’s walk/strikeout rate fell into negative territory (69-71), but just barely.

Did Kepler sense that sort of year was going to happen for him?

“No, it was all unexpected,” he said. “I was telling myself to be more confident, more aggressive. Just being more confident made me see the ball better. Mechanically, I worked on a leg kick. Every day I came out with the same mindset: ‘Just stay positive.’ Even if I went 0-for-4 or 0-for-6, I just came back every day, ready to work.”

That same mentality should serve Kepler well as he attempts to win a big league job in 2016 as a 23-year-old. He will be vying with the likes of Eddie Rosario, converted shortstop Danny Santana and top prospect Byron Buxton, all homegrown Twins. While Kepler profiles best at a corner outfield spot, he did spend 19 games in center last season and has shown the ability to handle the position, even at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds.

“He’s a gifted athlete,” Molitor said. “He runs better than average. Max is probably faster than most people think he is. He’s a big kid. His body certainly has had tremendous development in the last 18 months or so. (Twins player-development people) say he’s adapting to learning the nuances of center field compared to the corners.”

No doubt it helps Kepler’s case that Molitor is so familiar with him and his unusual career arc. Back in the early days of Kepler’s pro path, when the Hall of Famer was serving as a special assistant and infield/baserunning instructor in the Twins system, Molitor would spend early mornings on the field with Kepler in Fort Myers before the eager prodigy would be driven crosstown to classes at South Fort Myers High School.

“As a youngster, as a teenager, he was very raw,” Molitor said. “As he kind of grew into his body and it developed, between the speed and the strength, he’s probably figured out (in 2015) more extensively than any other point how to use what he has.”

It was Kepler’s consistency, Molitor said, that proved most impressive last season. His mini-slumps never lasted very long, while his hot streaks kept getting extended.

“You watch him hit, and he’s got a major league sound to his bat,” Molitor said. ‘Considering the competition he had playing baseball before he came over here was probably fairly minimal, it’s been a little bit of a different developmental curve for him, both in terms of his own and competing with players he probably never saw the likes of back home.”

Over time, Kepler has made sufficient progress to assuage nearly all of the doubts.

“He’s begun,” Molitor said, “to figure it out.”

Mike Berardino covers the Twins for the St. Paul Pioneer-Press

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