Why the Twins are buying Max Kepler and where his trade value stands | Jobs Reply

Free agent signings have dominated the first phase of the MLB offseason, with more than $3 billion in contracts handed out while a few notable trades were completed. Even the Twins, who signed one free agent to a major league contract in Christian Vázquez, have been so focused on pursuing Carlos Correa that a trade has been put on hold until now.

“The trade market tends to look better after the free agency market dries up to some extent,” baseball president Derek Falvey said last week at the Winter Meetings in San Diego. “If teams can use their free agent dollars to get that talent, they’d rather do that. There are times when you have to be patient and wait for whatever the market will deal with.”

At some point there will be a run at trades – throughout MLB and especially in Minnesota – and if that happens Max Kepler is the most obvious trade candidate for the Twins. Part of the Twins’ core for the past seven years, Kepler is now coming off a career-worst season and will soon turn 30. He is entering the final guaranteed year of his contract, with younger players waiting in the wings.

Falvey declined to comment publicly on the possibility of trading Kepler, but he did discuss why the Twins might be inclined to deal with MLB in a depleted farm system and why trading deep space is always better. And left-handed hitting outfielders are the Twins’ depth spot, in the majors and the upper minors.

“Your hope at some point is you’re going to get a play that needs a need,” Falvey said of the trade talks. “Maybe there’s a balance in an area where you feel like you have a little depth. Perhaps a place where there is a commonality or equality. Some of those conversations were happening right now, but I would say right now there’s a free conversation that needs to happen before people switch to commercials.”

Kepler hasn’t been productive long enough to be the basis of a trade that gets a star player or top prospect in return, but league sources confirm the Twins’ internal belief that he still has good trade value associated with the contract to pay him. $8.5 million in 2023 and a $10 million option or a $1 million buyout in 2024.

In other words, the twins can shake him up. And maybe it will, though it might take a few left-handed hitting outfielders off the board first. He appeals to teams looking for left-handed bats and quality defense, and will be seen by some as especially interesting ahead of new defensive shift restrictions aimed at helping light hitters like Kepler.

Having a few second basemen lined up in right shortstop will certainly help Kepler, but his worst batting average stems as much from the poor quality of his contact as from where the infielders are standing. And nothing but bad luck. Otherwise, the expected impact of the new shift rules points to modest gains in the range of 5-10 hits per season, all of which are singles.

Kepler can still be turned against, in more extreme ways. And his inability to use the opposite field — and penchant for groundballs toward second base and bunts in the outfield — will only get better unless the new team can get past Kepler in ways the Twins can’t. It’s also important to note that the Twins’ perception of Kepler’s defensive ability and flexibility has changed.

Kepler has started 127 games and logged 1,126 innings in center field, filling in for the injured Byron Buxton, and he tends to do a solid job there. Given the likelihood that Buxton will miss more time with an injury in 2023, keeping Kepler around to fill in would make sense in theory, but in practice it doesn’t work for two reasons.

First, the Twins have avoided using Kepler in center field over the past few seasons, believing he’s fit when asked to play there regularly and knowing he prefers to stay in right field whenever possible. Kepler started in center field 44 times in 2018 and 53 times in 2019, but has made a total of 21 center field trips since then, including zero last season for the first time in his career.

Second, even if Kepler and the Twins have always looked to center field for him, his injuries have kept him out of the outfield too much to be a reliable backup to Buxton anyway. Kepler was on multiple injured lists in 2021 and 2022, and even when he was on the active roster, he was often not available day in and day out due to nagging health issues.

No team has needed a better center fielder more than the Twins, yet they have turned to Kepler in that role more and more. Gilberto Celestino, Nick Gordon, Jake Cave and Rob Refsnyder have each started more games in center field for the Twins than Kepler since 2021. Last season, they used a variety of starting center fielders and Kepler was not one of them.

The new team may be more confident that Kepler is a viable pitcher, but for the Twins in 2023, that’s not part of his value. And once he’s seen as a right-handed hitter, Kepler has less everyday utility than younger, cheaper options like Alex Kirilloff, Trevor Larnach, Matt Wallner and Gordon, each of whom is a left-handed hitter who can play. right field.

They won’t be as good in the field as Kepler, who is a right fielder with a strong arm and added range, but his hitting is much easier to replicate or develop. Kepler has hit just .220/.314/.392 since 2020, posting a below-average 98 OPS+ in 284 games, including a career-worst 93 OPS+ last season while hitting .227 /.318/.348 in 115 games.

During that three-season span, Kepler hit .185 against lefties, making it clear that he should be a platoon player used only against righties. Except his .233/.329/.433 line against righties was nothing special. There’s every reason to think that Kirilloff, Larnach, Wallner and the younger, lower-paid Gordon can provide at least that much offense, saving about $8 million in the process.

Much like trading Gio Urshela to the Angels last month opened up third base for the younger, cheaper and taller Jose Miranda, parting ways with Kepler could do the same in right field. Urhela’s trade market was limited enough with a salary of around $9 million that he returned only a low prospect, but the Twins believe Kepler and his contract can return significant value.

(Top photo: Nick Cammett / Diamond Images via Getty Images)

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