Prospect Profile: Max Kepler, OF, Minnesota Twins
Super-prospect Byron Buxton and monster mashing third baseman Miguel Sano have drawn most of the attention in the Minnesota Twins farm system this year. 19-year-old Buxton is likely the top prospect in baseball right now, having hit .341/.431/.559 with 32 steals over 68 games for Low-A Cedar Rapids in the Midwest League. He was promoted to High-A Fort Myers earlier this week. 20-year-old Sano mashed 16 homers with a .330 average in 56 games for Fort Myers before his recent promotion to Double-A, where he's hit three homers in his first 15 games for New Britain.
Buxton was a first-round pick in 2012 and Sano a high-dollar signee out of the Dominican Republic in 2009. This is an outstanding one-two punch of talent, but the rich Twins system boasts considerable depth behind the top pair. Although they don't get as much attention for it as some organizations, the Twins have a robust international scouting presence and will go a considerable distance to find prospects. They have had a long-standing scouting focus in Australia and are one of the most active teams in Europe.
One prospect to watch closely in the second half is Max Kepler, a German-born outfielder who has taken over for Buxton in Cedar Rapids.
Kepler was signed out of Germany for $800,000 in 2009, the largest bonus ever given to a European. The son of American and Polish ballet dancers, he moved to the US after signing and graduated from a Florida high school in '10.
Kepler was a speedy athlete without much power when he signed at age 16. He was understandably somewhat raw, but the Twins felt that he would show more power with age and had some natural feel for the game to go with his tools. A left-handed hitter, he was 6-4, 180 when he joined the organization.
He held his own as a 17-year-old in the Gulf Coast League in 2010, hitting .286/.346/.343, not showing power but demonstrating a decent feel for the strike zone. Moved up to short-season Elizabethton in the Appalachian League in 2011, he hit .262/.347/.366, not great but acceptable considering his age and background.
The Twins sent Kepler back to Elizabethton for 2012. Repeating a league isn't generally a good thing, but at age 19 he was still age-appropriate for the competition. He blossomed, hitting .297/.387/.539 with 10 homers, 27 walks, and just 33 strikeouts in 232 at-bats. He led the Appalachian League in slugging percentage.
A sore elbow kept Kepler sidelined much of this spring, but he was activated last week and sent to Cedar Rapids. He's thrived in his first six games, going 8-for-25 (.320) with four doubles, two homers, three walks, and four strikeouts. With Buxton promoted to Fort Myers, Kepler is now the highest-ceiling prospect on the Kernels roster, which is saying something because Cedar Rapids is loaded with talent currently.
Kepler has gained about 20 good pounds since signing, now standing 6-4, 205 or so. He has lost some speed with maturity, but has gained strength; the Twins will take that tradeoff if he continues to hit for power and average. He has developed a good batting eye and his strikeout rate is reasonable for a young power hitter. In that regard, he reminds me to some extent of a young Justin Morneau.
Kepler's swing is technically sound and with his added physical strength, the ball jumps off his bat. His main weakness last season was lack of power against left-handed pitching, but given his progress over the last 12 months, there's good reason to think he'll be able to adapt.
The Twins saw Kepler as a pure center fielder when signed, but he split his time between center and left last year and again this season. He has good instincts, but in the long run he likely won't have the range to play center regularly at the major league level.
His arm is mediocre and he will fit better in left than in right. There is a chance he will wind up at first base if he loses too much speed, but that's down the line. He remains a good overall athlete and would likely develop into a sharp defender at first base if he does move there.
Kepler's fast start at Cedar Rapids is good to see, though we need more data of course. At age 20 in the Midwest League, he is still in an appropriate spot on the age/competition curve, particularly given his background. I had him rated as a high-ceiling Grade B prospect entering 2013. If he continues to rip the ball in the second half, that will go higher for 2014.