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With spring training less than six weeks away, the Twins' outfield remains amorphous. We can't say with any degree of confidence who will be starting at any of the three positions and we might not have any real clarity on the matter until camp gets underway.
One wild card in this equation is Max Kepler. How, and when, might the ascending young prospect fit into the team's outfield picture?
Kepler is, of course, coming off a huge breakout season in which he was named the organization's Minor League Player of the Year after hitting .322/.416/.531 with 54 extra-base hits, 19 steals and a phenomenal 63-to-67 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 112 games at Class-AA New Britain. His campaign ended with a September call-up to the big leagues at age 22.
The fast-rising outfielder is featured on the cover of the recently released 2016 Twins Prospect Handbook and could very well be a factor in the 2016 campaign. But how quickly is it realistic to believe he'll become a viable option? Could he make a legitimate play for an Opening Day spot?
The fluidity of the outfield situation would appear to leave that door open. Eddie Rosario is basically assured a job, and – barring an unforeseen Trevor Plouffe trade – so is Miguel Sano. With Aaron Hicks gone, that leaves one opening, which could be center or a corner spot. The contenders for that gig are all questionable to varying degrees. Oswaldo Arcia is coming off a wreck of a season. Byron Buxton may need more seasoning. Danny Santana is a less than appealing option. Ryan Sweeney, Darin Mastroianni and Joe Benson? Meh.
Kepler certainly has more momentum behind him than any of those names, and there is precedent for a prospect turning the corner at Double-A and overtaking a vacant outfield job the following spring. Hicks did so in 2013, following the trades of Denard Span and Ben Revere. While that obviously didn't end well, Kepler is coming off a considerably more impressive year at Chattanooga than Hicks' 2012 at New Britain.
Still, as a kid who was signed at age 16 out of Germany and was always viewed as more of a long-term project, I think the Twins will be more inclined to show patience with Kepler. His hit tool has developed very gradually in the minors and while his 2016 campaign was a very encouraging one, I believe they'll be inclined to give him some time in Triple-A before considering him as anything other an an emergency option in the majors. While he'll be in big-league camp this spring, I suspect that even with a big performance in Grapefruit League play, he'll be ticketed for Rochester out of the gates.
How long will he stay there? That will be dictated by what happens in the Twins outfield and of course by his own performance. It isn't difficult to envision Kepler entering the fold by June or July, and perhaps earlier if injuries strike. I also wouldn't be surprised if he spends the entire year at Triple-A, even with solid production, because Buxton is ahead of him in line and it behooves the Twins to give Arcia a good long look this year.
Really, what it comes down to is that the guy standing in front of Kepler is Plouffe. Once he's gone and Sano can return to third, the path becomes much clearer.
Whenever Kepler does arrive, he'll have a pretty good chance at quickly establishing himself as the best European player in MLB history -- a highly attainable title given the relatively untapped nature of that market. Sometime this season, a Minnesota Twins lineup could feature representation from Germany (Kepler), Dominican Republic (Sano), Puerto Rico (Rosario), Venezuela (Eduardo Escobar) and South Korea (Byung Ho Park). That's an exciting mix of nationalities that reflects the growing international flavor of baseball as a whole. I love it.
When do you expect Kepler to be here?