2022 Center Field Targets? – Max Kepler
Two weeks ago I looked at who I think would be best for the Yankees shortstop problem in 2022. I landed on Amed Rosario as the best option. Last week I looked at who I think would be best for the Yankees first base problem in 2022. I landed on Freddie Freeman as the best option.
This week, I look to center field to see if there are any good solutions for the Yankees going forward. Yesterday we looked at a former Minnesota Twin, and today we look at a current Minnesota Twin: Max Kepler.
Max Kepler: A Quick Overview
Max Kepler attended John F. Kennedy High School and was signed at 16-years-old by the Minnesota Twins for $800,000 in 2009 as an international free agent. Read this and it sounds extremely confusing, until I tell you that JFK High School is located in Berlin, Germany. As with most international free agents, Kepler started his professional baseball the next season in 2010 and was placed in rookie ball. Over the next 6 seasons, Kepler slowly moved up the minor league ladder, playing his way into the 2015 Futures Game (for the World team) and making his MLB debut on September 27th, 2015. Going into the 2016 season, Kepler was a consensus Top-75 prospect in the MLB and after just 30 games in Triple-A (over two stints) he became a permanent member in the MLB starting that June. While a good player so far during his career, Max Kepler has yet to win any awards during his career, though he did receive low-ballot MVP votes in 2019. After his three rookie seasons, Max Kepler signed a 5-Year/$35 Million extension (with a 6th year team option at $10 Million; $1 Million buyout) beginning in 2019 and going through the 2023 (or 2024) season.
Over his career, Max Kepler has hit to a combined .233/.317/.439 (.756 OPS/103 OPS+) extended triple-slash with 598 hits, 120 home runs, and 357 RBI’s in 722 games over parts of 7 seasons. He’s put in 5,810.1 innings in the outfield with most of those in right (4,693.0) and some in center (1117.1). In the outfield, he’s put up a +39 DRS (+36 DRS in RF, +3 in CF) and a +30.7 UZR (+26.3 UZR in RF, +4.4 in CF). Combined, he’s accumulated +14.8 bWAR/+12.7 fWAR.
In 2021, Max Kepler had a little bit of a disappointing season as he hit to a .211/.306/.413 (.719 OPS/98 OPS+) extended triple-slash (his first season with an OPS+ under 100 since 2018) with 90 hits, 19 home runs, and 54 RBI’s. He played 949.2 innings in the outfield with 785.2 in RF and 164.0 in CF to a combined +4 DRS (+9 in RF, -5 in CF) and a +4.1 UZR (+5.4 in RF, -1.3 in CF).
When it comes to injuries, Max Kepler is neither an ironman nor is he prone to extensive or major injuries. It’s more often that he misses a few games/a week here-or-there than that he’s going to be out long-term. Since 2014 (the first year he went on a DL/IL), he’s made 7 appearances over 5 different seasons. The list is as follows:
2014 – Undisclosed minor league injury (out 2 weeks) & Undisclosed minor league injury (out 1 week) 2015 – Healthy season! 2016 – Strained left groin (out 1 week) 2017 – Healthy season! 2018 – Healthy season! 2019 – Healthy season! 2020 – Left adductor strain (out 10 days) 2021 – Undisclosed major league injury [COVID] (out 9 days) & Left hamstring strain (out 3 weeks)
The Case For Max Kepler:
When I looked at first base options, I also pulled an interesting name out of my head in Kyle Schwarber. He’s much alike Max Kepler in this scenario as a player who is available and has some experience at the position where the Yankees need help. The only question is if Kepler’s pros outweigh his cons.
Max Kepler, since breaking into the MLB in 2015 has not had a season where he has not played 75%+ of his teams games. Now, this does include 113 games in the MiLB in 2015 and another 30 in 2016 (in addition to 3 MLB games and 113 MLB games in each season respectively). In those seasons, he’s also played in 80%+ of his teams games in 5 of those seasons and 90%+ in 2 of those seasons. That’d definitely be a step-up for the Yankees.
Max Kepler is also very much a buy-low candidate. This is something Brian Cashman is always after (see: Gio Urshela, Mike Tauchman, Jonathan Loaisiga, etc). Now, his value is still pretty good according to BaseballTradeValues.com (+23.6 MTV), Kepler is coming off a below-average offensive season, a decent defensive season. Though, he has a very high bounce-back potential for 2022. With 2-Years/$15.25 Million left on his deal (or 3/$25.25 Million), Kepler would need to produce just 3.2 WAR over the next two years to be valuable by contract size. Considering he was on pace for around that figure in 2020 and beat it in both 2019 and 2018, he’s going to be worth the money.
Max Kepler would also be a good candidate to take advantage of in general. The Twins have a plethora of corner outfielders in or near the MLB level (though the Yankees could acquire him to try him in center) and they desperately need pitching help. The Yankees (fans) also desperately want them to move on from Domingo German (+13.7 MTV). A move with German and a prospect or two would be equal in value (hypothetically) and wouldn’t hurt the farm or MLB team much at all.
Some other notes of interest: Max Kepler is a lefty, has experience in center field, and the Yankees were heavily rumored (and talked with the Twins about) Max Kepler during the 2021 trade deadline before getting Joey Gallo. There is a reasonable logic here.
The Simple Pro’s: Pretty Available & Healthy, Buy-Low, Twins Can Sell, Left-Handed Bat
The Case Against Max Kepler:
Now, as I referenced Kyle Schwarber earlier, I also did see a lot more flaws in trying to move him to first base on the fly than it felt reasonable for him to be the Yankees replacement there. Max Kepler also has a lot of those same faults.
It is hard to want to go into a season with transitioning a player into a new role, even if they have experience there. Just take a look at Gleyber Torres over the past two seasons. While there is no one definitive factor in what has led to Torres’ offensive decline, his move away from second base (where he was great defensively) to shortstop (a place he had middling MLB experience) did seem to bring out his confidence on the field. Max Kepler is a risk to fall into that same realm, especially after an already poor offensive season.
The other main question about trading for Max Kepler is if he is worth the cost to get. The Yankees have other areas of concern (shortstop, first base, pitching, etc.) where they may want to spend their available prospects and MLB players to get. Max Kepler (or any center fielder) is likely lower on that totem pole for someone to acquire. Especially because while the Twins have a plethora of outfield talent on their roster, so do the Yankees with: Aaron Hicks, Joey Gallo, Aaron Judge, and Giancarlo Stanton (and likely again Brett Gardner).
The Simple Con’s: Defensive Risk, Acquisition Cost
Max Kepler would be the exact type of player that I wouldn’t be surprised to see Brian Cashman bring to the Yankees. Trading him for some extra starting pitching talent, and getting a good left-handed hitting outfielder with good defense seems like a great move…if the Yankees didn’t already have that player in Joey Gallo.
However, Gallo fits that extra “home run or die” player mold that Cashman likes even more (see: Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sanchez, what happened to Gleyber Torres, etc). So, Max Kepler doesn’t have a space on the Yankees.
Now, they could trade for Kepler and trade away Gallo, a move which would save them money in the long-run as Gallo is set to make about $10-11 Million in 2022 and Kepler will be making $15.25 Million over the next two years guaranteed. That could be a reasonable move from a team looking to save some salary room over the next few years.
Max Kepler would be a good fit for the Yankees if they were building a team from the ground up and needed a cheaper option to fill an outfield role. As a center fielder he could be an interesting option, but would require a back-up player and the Yankees already essentially have that with Aaron Hicks.