Athletic Kepler boasts broad skill set
Twins prospect displaying quickness, mature approach at the plate
When I first scouted Max Kepler in the Arizona Fall League, I didn't know much about him.
My first impression was that he looked a bit "raw."
Playing for the Minnesota Twins contingent on the Glendale Desert Dogs, Kepler looked like he was young for the league and needed more time to develop obvious tools that were in the early stages of refinement.
I learned that Kepler is from Berlin, Germany, and played for a Bavarian baseball team. His mother and father were both professional ballet dancers; his mom is from San Antonio and his dad is from Poland. So Kepler's athletic ability and coordination seem to come naturally, through the gene pool.
Kepler was signed as an international free agent in 2009. He is No. 8 on MLB.com's list of the Twins' Top 20 Prospects.
Now only 20 years old, Kepler has been young for every league and team for which he has played.
Kepler looks like an athlete. He is tall and lean at 6-foot-4 and 180 pounds. He could easily stand to gain both weight and muscle.
A left-handed hitter and fielder, he has the height and agility to play first base. That's where I saw him play in Arizona, and it might be where he fits best. He also plays the outfield.
Kepler's history in the Twins' farm system is interesting. Nothing spectacular has emerged to date, but he has shown progress in refining his skills.
For example, he began his career in the United States by playing 37 games as a 17-year-old for the Gulf Coast League Twins. He hit .286, while showing promise by making good, consistent contact.
Kepler followed that rookie season by going to Rookie League Elizabethtown in the Appalachian League for two consecutive seasons. He hit .262 the first year and .297 the second, and he increased his power production the second time around.
Kepler made strides playing two seasons at the same level and for the same team. The big improvements came in his slugging percentage and contact rate.
This past season, prior to joining the Desert Dogs in the AFL, Kepler played at Class A Cedar Rapids. He hit .237 with nine homers and 40 RBIs.
The first part of Kepler's season was shortened by an injury to his left elbow. It was an injury that lingered for a half-season and cost him developmental playing time. The Twins and Kepler were perplexed by the difficulty they realized in pinpointing the nature of the pain.
Kepler finished the season with only 263 plate appearances.
The Arizona Fall League was a perfect place to recover some of those missed at-bats.
Once again, Kepler was young for the league as he played against hitters and pitchers more advanced in development.
One of the tools I noticed immediately in Arizona was Kepler's quickness -- especially out of the batter's box, but on the bases as well. He runs like a seasoned athlete, and he has very good offensive potential.
Kepler played all his 18 AFL games at first base. That was unusual, because he had played mostly the outfield in his four-season career with the Twins. Of 197 games played through 2013, he split his time between all three outfield positions, with the exception of 27 games at first base.
During his 18 games in Arizona, Kepler had 64 at-bats, hitting .234 with four RBIs and no home runs. He drew seven walks and struck out 13 times, also making three errors.
While it wasn't a spectacular fall season, Kepler did leave a positive impression with his knowledge of the game and his mature, disciplined approach.
Kepler has good baseball instincts. His footwork and hand-eye coordination are advanced.
My view is that there is a large gap between the player we saw in Arizona and the player we will see a year from now. He projects to become an imposing hitter, one that can have a role as a prime utility player.
Given the Twins' switch of Joe Mauer to first base, Kepler may be able to offer depth at that position.
Much of Kepler's future will depend upon the development of his frame and how much power he can generate. Based on his quick hands and wrists, it is not unimaginable that he can play well in left field as well as at first base.
If Kepler is needed in the outfield, it appears to me that his arm strength and accuracy fit best in left field. With top prospect Byron Buxton targeted to play center, Kepler can offer versatility off the bench as a left fielder or first baseman.
Bernie Pleskoff has served as a professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. Follow @BerniePleskoff on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.