Trade Candidate: Max Kepler – MLB Trade Rumors

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Despite a thoroughly disappointing 73-89 season in 2021, Twins owner Jim Pohlad made things clear back in July — the Twins were planning to reload for 2022, not rebuild.  It wasn’t at all a far-fetched expectation, given how Minnesota won the AL Central in both 2019 and 2020, and still had several members of the big-hitting “Bomba Squad” core in place.

In regards to Max Kepler, however, the question heading into next season is whether or not the Twins truly consider him part of that core.  If the answer is no, Kepler stands out as an intriguing trade chip.

An international signing out of Germany in 2009, the Berlin-born Kepler began his pro career at age 17 and slowly made his way up the Twins’ organizational ladder, earning top-60 prospect attention heading into the 2016 season.  That was Kepler’s first year as a big league regular, and he quickly installed himself as Minnesota’s everyday right fielder.  Through three seasons of slightly below-average offense but 56 home runs and solid fielding, the Twins felt comfortable enough to lock Kepler up on a five-year, $35MM extension that also carries a $10MM club option for 2024 (with a $1MM buyout).

That extension started to look like a great move when Kepler delivered 36 homers and a .252/.336/.519 slash line over 596 plate appearances in 2019, earning himself some down-ballot MVP attention for his role in the Twins’ division-winning campaign.  Since that apparent breakout year, however, Kepler’s production has largely fallen back to his 2016-18 form, with some troubling secondary numbers that don’t hint that a turn-around.

Just looking at Kepler’s 2021 Statcast profile, you might wonder…what troubling numbers?  After all, with all those above-average metrics and a .347 xwOBA that was well beyond his .309 wOBA, a case could be made that Kepler was one of last season’s more unlucky players.  However, as The Athletic’s Aaron Gleeman noted last August, Kepler hits a lot of pop-ups, a lot of grounders, and is an extreme pull hitter.  As a result, the last two seasons have seen opposing defenses play shifts against Kepler well over 90% of the time, thus keeping his bat largely in check and essentially neutralizing whatever gains he made in 2019.

Since the start of the 2020 season, Kepler has hit .216/.310/.420 with 28 homers over 686 PA, which translates to just about league-average offensive production (99 wRC+, 101 OPS+).  He did miss a little over a month of last season due to a hamstring strain and a case of COVID-19, so it is possible that he could rebound in 2022 with better health and more time to make adjustments against the shift.

As he enters his age-29 season, Kepler might also just be who he is at the plate, with only one true standout season out of his six full years in the majors.  This doesn’t mean he isn’t a useful player, of course, considering that Kepler offers solid speed and baserunning, some power, and a strong glove.  Since the start of the 2016 season, Kepler has +36 Defensive Runs Saved, a +7.2 UZR/150, and +39 Outs Above Average as a right fielder.

Even subtracting his 4.5 fWAR season from 2019 from the mix, Kepler has still been worth 8.2 fWAR over his other five seasons.  That’s not bad return on a relatively modest price tag, and even though Kepler will get more expensive in the latter years of his extension, he is owed only $16.25MM — $6.75MM in 2022 and $8.5MM in 2023, plus the potential $1MM buyout of the club option for 2024.  With Buxton a constant injury risk, Kepler at least offers some stability within a Minnesota outfield that will feature two promising but unproven young players in top prospects Alex Kirilloff and Trevor Larnach in 2022.

Those are the solid arguments for keeping Kepler, and since the Twins do plan to contend next year, trading a cost-controlled veteran member of the lineup would seem like a bit of a surprise move on paper.  On the other hand, dealing Kepler for the right return could be the kind of creative pivot the Twins need to fix some of their other roster holes.

Many of the needs that existed for the Twins at the start of the offseason are still on the to-do list, as apart from extending Buxton and signing Dylan Bundy, it was a pretty quiet winter in the Twin Cities even before the lockout shut everything down.  With Minnesota looking to keep Jorge Polanco at second base, shortstop is still a need, and the Twins will need a lot more than just Bundy to help support a very inexperienced rotation.

Kepler wouldn’t be the first player to overhaul his swing and offensive approach later in his career, so if he can figure out a way to elevate the ball more often and beat the shift, he’ll suddenly be much more of a threat at the plate.  Given how regulating or even banning defensive shifts has been mentioned as a potential rule change by the league, the Twins might want to hang onto Kepler just in case there is some new edict announced to generate more action in the field of play.

As noted earlier, however, it is possible we’ve already seen Kepler’s offensive peak.  Moving him now might be an ideal way for the Twins to still capitalize on his value before any real decline begins.  If another team thinks they can fix Kepler, Minnesota might be willing to let them take him off their hands at the right price.

If being a cost-controlled veteran with a very good glove and at least an okay bat are reasons the Twins may want to keep Kepler, those same reasons would also make him attractive to other teams looking for outfield help.  The Yankees were one team known to be checking in on Kepler prior to the trade deadline, and other teams like the Padres, Guardians, White Sox, Phillies (would Bryce Harper embrace a move to left field?), Reds, Athletics, Red Sox, or Braves all make varying degrees of sense as a trade partner.

Minnesota might not been keen on moving Kepler within the AL Central, and teams like the Reds or A’s are more hypothetical fits since both teams have been mostly focused on cutting payroll this offseason.  As noted, though, Kepler isn’t very pricey, and neither the Reds or A’s have given up hope for contending in 2022 even while trying to trim the budget.  Since both Cincinnati and Oakland have the available pitching that the Twins would covet, some kind of a multi-player package might work — Kepler to the other team, a starting pitcher and perhaps another contract coming to Minnesota, and then some prospects on either side to even things out.

Taking on salary to accommodate a trade usually isn’t the Twins’ style, though it isn’t yet clear how much money the club might have available this winter.  The Twins’ interest in Robbie Ray did hint that they were at least willing to explore some bigger spending, and even hypothetically taking on some money (Shogo Akiyama? Stephen Piscotty?) from the Reds or A’s wouldn’t necessarily represent a huge outlay.

As good of a fit as someone like Kris Bryant might be in Minnesota’s outfield, that kind of big splash could still count as a surprise, so a Kepler replacement is more likely to be an outfielder on a one-year deal at a cheaper overall price than Kepler’s two remaining years.  Someone like Tommy Pham or Andrew McCutchen could theoretically match or better Kepler’s 2021 production, and such a right-handed bat would also make for a smoother fit in the Twins outfield, as Kepler, Buxton, Kirilloff, and Larnach are all left-handed hitters.  In terms of in-house righty bats, Brent Rooker is available for platoon duty, and top prospect Austin Martin is on track to make his MLB debut at some point in 2022 if he performs well at Triple-A.

If 2021 was kind of a Murphy’s Law year for the Twins, the team might opt to mostly stand pat with their roster and see how things play out early next season, just in case the situation naturally improves as players stay healthy or bounce back.  That said, such a strategy counts as a risk in an improving AL Central, so some boldness might be required to fix the problems the Twins know exist right now.  Even if trading Kepler might create another question in an outfield already lacking certainty, if Minnesota doesn’t see him as a building block beyond the end of his contract, a trade might be a wiser way for the Twins to bring more answers to their roster as a whole.

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