Souhan: Kepler deserves some of your Twins exasperation, too

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Eddie Rosario was one of the Twins' core group of young position players expected to lead the team well into the 2020s. The Twins released him last winter and he is with his third team in two years. His career on-base-plus-slugging-percentage is .781.

Miguel Sano is a targeted symbol of the Twins' injury problems, postseason failures and current decline. He goes through embarrassing stretches of ineptitude at the plate. His career OPS is .820.

Byron Buxton has received criticism for being repeatedly injured. Mitch Garver has been criticized for slumping in 2020 and, like Buxton, failing to stay healthy. Among the Twins' core group of position players who helped the team set a big-league record for home runs in 2019, only Jorge Polanco has stayed healthy and played to expectations this season.

There is a name missing from this list of Twins' core position players, and that name belongs to one who has slumped just as badly or worse as many of his peers and who has contributed greatly to the 2021 Twins' woes, but who has avoided the kind of bumper-sticker criticisms levied at his teammates.

Unlike Buxton and Garver, he has stayed relatively healthy. Unlike Sano, he doesn't go through entire months looking lost at the plate. Unlike Rosario, he is a quality fielder.

But Max Kepler hasn't been good enough. Not good enough to justify his contract, help his team win games, or extend his career with the Twins beyond his current deal.

As with Sano, Buxton and Garver, he's too talented to give up on while he's under contract. But he deserves as much or more criticism as his peers.

This year, Kepler's OPS is .726. He's hitting like a utility infielder. He's nowhere near as productive as Rosario was when Rosario was released, or Sano, whose frequent strikeouts draw boos.

For his career, Kepler's OPS is .758. That kind of production usually makes you a fourth or fifth outfielder, not a top-of-the-order bat.

Perhaps most alarming, Kepler, at 28 and in his seventh big-league season, has produced just one outstanding year: 2019, when he hit .252 with 36 home runs, 90 RBI, an on-base percentage of .336, a slugging percentage of .519 and an OPS of .855.

All of those figures were not just career-highs, but aberrations.

Now the Twins have to be looking at Kepler less as a rising star and more like another version of Rosario — a talented player who can hit home runs but whose value has waned as the baseball has become less lively.

Kepler has bought himself more time and front-office patience for a few reasons. He is an exceptionally well-conditioned athlete. There is no question about his work ethic or dedication. His swing looks like it should produce. Unlike Sano, he doesn't seem to get himself out with the same poor approach day after day.

But baseball is a game driven by statistics for a reason. If you watched Kepler play and didn't keep stats, you'd probably be impressed by his athletic ability. You'd probably think, because of his gracefulness and speed and build, that he is a star.

We do keep stats, and they reveal that Kepler draws far too few walks, doesn't hit for average and is a drag on the lineup when he isn't hitting 36 home runs in a season.

He's making $6.5 million this year, $6.75 million next year, $8 million in 2023 and has an option for $10 million in 2024.

For a team that works within a budget, the problem isn't so much the size of the deal as its length. Kepler could be replaced by Alex Kirilloff, Trevor Larnach, Royce Lewis or Austin Martin over the next couple of years. If Kepler can't become a better hitter, the Twins will be overpaying him to be a fourth or fifth outfielder.

Which is what he currently projects to be.

Kepler developing into a utility outfielder as he enters his physical prime was not the plan. The plan was for him to become a borderline star, a reliable run producer, a quality all-around player. That plan, to date, has failed.

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