August 11, 2015

Breakout season puts prospect Max Kepler in Twins’ long-term plans

Max Kepler Twins

Max Kepler was signed out of Germany as a 16-year-old in 2009, receiving $800,000 the same year the Twins handed a record $3.15 million bonus to 16-year-old Dominican shortstop Miguel Sano. Six years later Sano is establishing himself as the Twins' best hitter while making the idea of his massive frame ever playing shortstop seem impossible and Kepler is on the verge of joining him in Minnesota thanks to a breakout season at Double-A.

From the moment Kepler signed with the Twins he was billed as a good athlete with raw tools and lots of upside. He was a lanky center fielder then, but Kepler is now a solidly built 6-foot-4 corner outfielder/first baseman who still sees some time in center field. He's always been young for each level of competition and Kepler's on-field production often failed to match his prospect status, in part because he struggled to stay healthy.

That has all changed this season. Kepler has avoided the disabled list while consistently flashing nearly every skill set that he occasionally showed glimpses of in the past, hitting .326/.411/.544 at Double-A as a 22-year-old. Kepler leads the Southern League in OPS among all hitters with at least 250 plate appearances and the only hitter within 40 points of his .955 mark is Sano at .918. It may seem like Kepler has been around forever, but he won't turn 23 until next spring.

Kepler is hitting .326 compared to the league average of .254 and his .955 OPS is more than 250 points above the league mark. He's drawn 46 walks in 86 games while striking out just 51 times. He's gone 16-of-19 stealing bases. And while his seven home runs are modest, he's smacked 26 doubles and 11 triples for a total of 44 extra-base hits in 86 games. For some context, consider that Brian Dozier leads the Twins with 56 extra-base hits in 109 games.

Kepler is hitting for average, power, and patience while controlling the strike zone against much older, more experienced pitchers and adding value on the bases. He's batting .320 versus righties and .323 versus lefties, .316 at home and .325 on the road. And while he's no longer considered a viable long-term center field option in the big leagues, the Twins don't really need that anyway and Kepler figures to be a plus defender in left field or right field.

So when will Kepler arrive in Minnesota and where will he play once he gets there? That's where it gets tricky. For as great as he's been this season Kepler has played just 86 career games above Single-A and is a year removed from hitting .264/.333/.393. Beyond that the Twins' outfield is already crowded enough that Byron Buxton was demoted to Triple-A--where he joins Oswaldo Arcia--so Aaron Hicks, Eddie Rosario, and Torii Hunter could continue to play every day.

Even if the Twins avoid the temptation to re-sign Hunter for another season at age 40 they'll still have Buxton, Hicks, Rosario, and Arcia as potential 26-and-under starting outfielders for 2016 and that could leave Kepler with an extended stay at Triple-A. He's already on the 40-man roster, so a call-up could come any time and spending September with the Twins seems possible, but right now at least Kepler doesn't have a clear path to sticking in Minnesota.

Of course, given Hicks' career-long inability to hit right-handed pitchers he's probably best suited for a part-time role and Buxton in center field being flanked in the corners by lefty hitters Rosario and Kepler would create plenty of platooning opportunities and excellent defense. Whatever the case, Kepler's breakout season has thrust him toward the top of the Twins' prospect pile and he now looks capable of being a long-term building block beginning as soon as next season.

For a lot more about how the Twins' outfield will look in 2016 and beyond check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

August 10, 2015

Gleeman and The Geek #208: Free Fallin’

Topics for this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode included the Twins' collapse, rotation ugliness and Trevor May staying in the bullpen, Jose Berrios' timetable, Byron Buxton's rehab, Aaron Hicks' extreme splits, Tyler Duffey's rough debut, Chris Herrmann vs. Eric Fryer, Carlos Correa being a superstar already, the Tigers firing Dave Dombrowski, and reviewing Lollapalooza as a 70-year-old.

Gleeman and The Geek: Episode 208

In addition to the direct download link above you can also subscribe to the podcast via iTunes.

This week's blog content is sponsored by Uber, which is offering a free ride to first-time users who sign up with the promo code "UberGleeman."

August 6, 2015

Twins Notes: Duffey, May, O’Rourke, Hicks, Sano, Mauer, and Hendriks

Tyler Duffey Twins

Tyler Duffey allowed a grand total of one homer in 540 plate appearances between Double-A and Triple-A this season and then served up two homers in his Twins debut, including one to the second MLB hitter he faced. Based on the "game score" statistic Duffey had the seventh-worst debut start in Twins history. Who had the worst? LaTroy Hawkins in 1995. And then 21 years later Hawkins closed out the Blue Jays' win against the Twins in Duffey's debut.

Trevor May never deserved to be demoted from the rotation to the bullpen in the first place and hopefully the Twins remain committed to him as a long-term starter, but he's looked strong as a reliever. He's got a 3.18 ERA and 10/2 K/BB ratio in 11 innings along with increased velocity, which is probably enough to make him the Twins' best right-handed bullpen option over Blaine Boyer, Casey Fien, and trade deadline pickup Kevin Jepsen.

• Rookie reliever Ryan O'Rourke is living up to the hype of being death to left-handed hitters, who are 2-for-21 (.095) with 11 strikeouts against him since last month's call-up. Using him in a very limited role remains crucial, but the Twins may have found a long-term bullpen piece in the unheralded 27-year-old southpaw. With a strong finish he should be able to secure a spot in next year's Opening Day bullpen, which won't include Brian Duensing.

Aaron Hicks' improved overall performance is very encouraging from a one-time top prospect who's still just 25 years old, but not being able to hit right-handed pitching remains a big issue. This season he's hit .375/.429/.578 off lefties and .228/.291/.315 off righties. For his career he's hit .288/.374/.466 off lefties and .197/.277/.287 off righties. Hicks is a switch-hitter, but in both the minors and the majors he's shown little ability to be an asset from the left side of the plate.

Byron Buxton's long-awaited debut was cut short after 11 games by a thumb injury that he's still recovering from six weeks later, but fellow stud prospect Miguel Sano has immediately lived up to the hype. As expected he's struck out a ton and hit for a ton of power, but the 22-year-old has also shown incredible plate discipline with 21 walks in 27 games and an impressive ability to lay off borderline pitches. Twins fans should be thrilled with how he's looked so far.

• There have been occasional signs of life, but sadly Joe Mauer has continued to look like a shell of his former, pre-concussion self. He's hit just .275/.346/.398 in 47 games since I wrote a "What happened to Joe Mauer?" article that examined the numbers since his late-2012 concussion and expressed very little confidence in his getting back on track. Mauer is now in his second season of being a below-average first baseman after a decade of being a Hall of Fame-caliber catcher.

Danny Santana got a longer leash than most struggling Twins prospects, but he's finally back in the minors after hitting .218/.242/.298 with a ghastly 66/5 K/BB ratio in 74 games and playing mistake-filled defense at shortstop. His great rookie season screamed fluke, but no one could have expected Santana to be this awful as a sophomore. However, his career .272/.316/.392 line and poor strike zone control in the minors are reasons to be skeptical of a big turnaround.

Liam Hendriks was the Twins minor league pitcher of the year in 2011, but he went 2-13 with a 6.06 ERA in 156 innings as a starter and they lost him on waivers for nothing. Still just 26 years old, he's found a home in Toronto's bullpen with a 2.47 ERA and 50/6 K/BB ratio in 47 innings. As a starter Hendriks always had modest raw stuff, topping out in the low 90s, but this season he's averaging 94.4 miles per hour with his fastball and topping out 97.

For a lot more about Jepsen's arrival, Duffey's upside, and Hicks' improvement check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode with a special guest co-host.

August 3, 2015

Gleeman and The Geek #207: Kevin Jepsen, Trade (For) Me Maybe

Parker Hageman of Twins Daily stepped in as co-host on this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode and topics included the Twins trading for Kevin Jepsen, Tommy Milone's injury, Tyler Duffey joining the rotation, Aaron Hicks' improvement, Byron Buxton's next step, Danny Santana and Jorge Polanco going to the minors, whether or not to worry about Glen Perkins, and recording your children doing embarrassing things for future use.

Gleeman and The Geek: Episode 207

In addition to the direct download link above you can also subscribe to the podcast via iTunes.

This week's blog content is sponsored by Uber, which is offering a free ride to first-time users who sign up with the promo code "UberGleeman."

July 31, 2015

Deadline deal: Twins acquire reliever Kevin Jepsen from Rays

Kevin Jepsen Rays

Faced with clear weaknesses at shortstop, catcher, and reliever heading into Friday afternoon's trade deadline the Twins addressed only the bullpen, acquiring right-hander Kevin Jepsen from the Rays in exchange for pitching prospects Chih-Wei Hu and Alexis Tapia. Their lack of activity should come as no surprise, in part because the Twins are typically fairly conservative and in part because meaningful midseason upgrades at shortstop and catcher are hard to find.

On the other hand contending teams adding veteran bullpen reinforcements at the trade deadline is an annual tradition and this year was no different, with nearly a dozen quality relievers on the move. That list includes Jepsen, who has a 3.80 ERA in eight seasons with the Rays and Angels, but beyond clearing the low bar of representing an upgrade over Casey Fien and Blaine Boyer he's an underwhelming pickup.

Jensen throws hard, averaging 95 miles per hour with his fastball, but his career strikeout rate of 8.5 per nine innings is merely average for an MLB reliever and has dipped to a career-low 7.3 per nine innings this year. Jepsen also has terrible control, walking 3.6 per nine innings for his career and 4.3 per nine innings this year. Jepsen's nice-looking 2.81 ERA in 46 appearances for the Rays this season comes attached to a poor 34/20 K/BB ratio in 42 innings.

He's essentially an average reliever. There are 152 different pitchers with at least 100 innings out of the bullpen since 2013 and among them Jepsen ranks 60th in strikeout rate, 111th in walk rate, and 64th in ground-ball rate, which adds up to an 80th-ranked 3.15 ERA and a 73rd-ranked 3.54 xFIP. By comparison Fien has logged more innings than Jepsen with an identical 3.54 xFIP since 2013, albeit with a higher ERA.

Jepsen throws hard, strikes out a decent number of batters, and does a good job limiting homers, but he also struggles to consistently throw strikes and has a lopsided platoon split that makes him a poor matchup against good left-handed hitters in the late innings. He's not especially good, he's not especially bad, and there's certainly a very realistic chance that he provides the Twins with 20 useful innings down the stretch.

In question is whether Jepsen was the correct veteran reliever for the Twins to target as their lone trade deadline addition when plenty of bullpen arms were on the move and, beyond that, whether an average 31-year-old middle reliever with declining secondary numbers was worth parting ways with a decent 21-year-old starting pitching prospect in Hu (along with a 19-year-old rookie-baller in Tapia) rather than simply giving a chance to an in-house option like Michael Tonkin.

Hu ranked 19th on my list of the Twins' top prospects coming into the season and has improved his stock since then, posting a 2.44 ERA and 73/19 K/BB ratio in 85 innings at high Single-A and tossing six innings of one-run ball in a spot start at Triple-A. Signed out of Taiwan for $220,000 in 2012, he lacks dominant raw stuff but is hardly a soft-tosser and has shown good control against older, more experienced hitters.

There's no chance of Hu turning into a top-of-the-rotation starter and non-elite Single-A pitching prospects have a very high attrition rate, but he's a young pitcher who currently ranked among the Twins' top 12-15 prospects and would probably crack the top 10 in a lot of farm systems. You can view Hu as a solid prospect or as a lottery ticket with good but not great payoff potential, but either way swapping him for a mediocre middle reliever is questionable.

Jepsen is under team control via arbitration for next season, which could be spun as a positive compared to the various impending free agents changing teams as two-month rentals. However, given his $3.03 million salary this season Jepsen would likely get $5 million or more through the arbitration process next season and if the ability to retain an average 31-year-old reliever for that salary carries value it isn't much.

This week's blog content is sponsored by Uber, which is offering a free ride to first-time users who sign up with the promo code "UberGleeman."

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