Warne: Twins prospect Max Kepler begins task of reestablishing himself
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The last of an ever-improving group of top prospects in the Minnesota Twins' system makes his season debut Thursday night.
German-born outfielder Max Kepler has finally been activated for low Single-A Cedar Rapids after missing the entire first half (68 games) of the Midwest League season.
The injury that held Kepler out was a puzzling one. Tests revealed no structural damage in his left throwing elbow, but every time he took a step forward in his recovery it seemed the next day was a step back.
"This one was hard to figure out," Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. "It wasn't getting any better, and it just took rest. He'd take infield and feel OK, and come back the next day he just wouldn't feel right. Now he feels good, and it's time."
Kepler started in left field, and batted sixth for the Kernels Thursday in their second half season opener against the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers.
Signed in 2009, Kepler made his short-season debut the season after. Kepler started out as lean 180-pound outfielder, who had pretty good contact skills but next to no power. In fact, he slugged well under the .400 mark in each of his first two seasons in the Twins' system.
But something took hold in 2012, as Kepler repeated Rookie ball with the Twins' Elizabethton affiliate. Kepler's OPS shot up 200-plus points from a pedestrian .714 to an elite .925. It was no doubt due in large part to the 10 home runs he hit in well under 300 plate appearances.
In the previous two seasons, Kepler had only managed one home run.
Not only did Kepler drive the ball more, he also slashed his strikeout rate, saw a nice boost to his walk rate and even managed to steal seven bases.
And the added pop was not because the Twins remanufactured Kepler's swing, which was considered a bit slap-happy when he first emerged stateside from his home country of Germany. In fact, assistant general manager Rob Antony would suggest it's simply Kepler adding some muscle.
"I would estimate he's put on about 25 pounds (while in the Twins system)," Antony said. "He's really growing into his body. He drives the ball now; he doesn't just put it into play. He's going to have power."
General manager Terry Ryan gave high marks of praise to Kepler's athleticism, suggesting that while he may play in a corner, he could certainly fill centerfield if there wasn't a young man by the name of Byron Buxton currently in his way.
Antony dropped some hints about a Buxton promotion, which could pave the way for Kepler to play in center on a more regular basis.
For now though, the Twins aren't anticipating an extremely fast start out of Kepler, even though he obviously showed he was ready for the move up.
"It'll be an adjustment because he's behind," Ryan said. "He hasn't seen a lot of action this spring. All of the sudden we're going to strap him in a pretty good league. He's ready for the it."
Most of the action Kepler saw down in Fort Myers was with the extended spring training program.
A nice thing Kepler brings to the table is versatility. Not only can he rove between all three outfield positions, but he can fill in at first base too, a la Chris Parmelee.
"He's actually a pretty good first baseman," Antony noted, adding that it won't be Kepler's primary position by any means, but just another way for him provide value as he moves up.
Already the No. 8 prospect in a stacked Twins farm system, one prospect writer I've spoken with in the last year suggested that Kepler's 2012 emergence put him on the radar as a possible top-100 prospect in the near future. Now, whether or not the layoff has tempered some of that enthusiasm remains to be seen, but that's the kind of talent the Twins are dealing with here.
In a system ripe with Buxtons, Sanos, and Rosarios, don't let your eyes wander too far off Kepler.