Likely Backup: Robbie Grossman
Depth: Eddie Rosario, Jake Cave, Zack Granite
Prospects: Alex Kirilloff, Akil Baddoo, Jaylin Davis
Following a strong rookie showing as a 23-year-old in 2016, Kepler maintained in his sophomore season. Holding down right field from start to finish, he posted a .243/.312/.425 slash line with 19 home runs, 32 doubles, and six steals on seven tries.
Sure, stagnation isn't great – Kepler's 96 OPS+ in 2017 was identical to his 2016 mark – but it's much better than regression, which is common for a second-year big-leaguer.
The last time Kepler turned in consecutive seasons with such similar production was 2013 and 2014, between two levels of A-ball. At age 20 he registered a .736 OPS in Cedar Rapids, and he followed with a .726 OPS in Ft. Myers at 21. The next year was his big breakout, when Kepler put himself on the top prospect map by slashing a ridiculous .322/.416/.531 at Chattanooga to earn Southern League MVP honors.
From an optimist's standpoint, the outfielder's minor-league track record could also be instructive with regard to his progression against left-handed pitching. No, he was not good in 2017 – and we'll get to that shortly – but Kepler also endured massive struggles against southpaws in Low-A (.365 OPS with the Kernels) before taking a step forward at High-A (.691 OPS with the Miracle) and turning the corner at Double-A (.893 OPS with the Lookouts).
Kepler has always been a bit of a gradual adjuster; perfectly understandable for a player who signed at age 16 out of a continent that rarely produces major leaguers.
He has barely crested 1,000 plate appearances in the majors, and turned 25 in February. His history points to there remaining growth potential, both against same-sided pitchers and offensively in general.
On the defensive side, Kepler did make some significant strides last year. After a mistake-prone rookie campaign he cut down his error total from seven to two, while also improving his range metrics. Kepler even made eight starts in center and held his own.
If he were to go down with an injury, Robbie Grossman would be in line to take over. Eddie Rosario could also move over from left, with Grossman or Zack Granite taking over in left. Some argue that Kepler and Rosario are best suited for a position swap, since Eddie has a better arm and covers less ground, but the difference isn't huge.
In the larger scheme, the Twins have one bona fide right field prospect in their system, and at a glance you might confuse him with the current MLB occupant. Alex Kirilloff has an athletic build and sweet lefty swing that are both remindful of Kepler, though scouts see more power in his frame, which is noticeably bigger this spring after a year off due to Tommy John surgery.
We'll be curious to see how Twins Daily's No. 5 prospect fares in his return to the field this year. But even with a strong showing back on the scene, Kirilloff is at least two or three years away, so the position belongs to Kepler for the foreseeable future.
Will it belong only to Kepler? Unless he can turn around his abysmal performance against lefties, the 25-year-old could be in line for a timeshare.
Kepler did not fare well against portsiders as a rookie, hitting .203/.273/.322 in 2016, but last year it really got ugly as he dropped to .152/.213/.240. That kind of ineptitude will make it difficult to write his name in against lefty starters, potentially leading to a reduction in his 568 plate appearances from 2017.
MLB right fielders posted a .798 OPS last season, second-highest of any position behind first base. That places Kepler, who finished at .737, well below average. If you could keep his .828 OPS versus righties, and plug in a platoon mate, you'd have yourself an admirable solution at the position. But unfortunately, the Twins lack viable candidates for such a setup at the moment.
Grossman, a switch-hitter and Kepler's primary backup, went just .238/.376/.320 versus southpaws last year, though he did put up a .994 OPS against them in 2016. Fellow backup options Jake Cave and Zack Granite also swing from the left side, as does near-ready prospect LaMonte Wade.
Ideally, the Twins would have a lefty-mashing corner outfielder on hand, but they didn't add one and perhaps that is by design. Kepler still has a chance to be a quality everyday player. He just may not have a ton more time to prove it.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Extreme platoon splits throw his ongoing status as an everyday player into question, but Kepler is a good outfielder whose ability to do damage against right-handers is not in doubt. He should get at least one more season to show he can right the ship against southpaws, and there's ample reason to believe he will.
Even if the Twins end up adding a righty swinger to complement him at some point, Kepler will get the lion's share of playing time. He combines with Eddie Rosario and Byron Buxton to give Minnesota a trio capable of sticking together for the next several years. Few franchises in the game can boast a better all-around outlook in the outfield.
~~~Catch up on the rest of the series:
Twins Daily Position Analysis: Catcher
Twins Daily Position Analysis: First Base
Twins Daily Position Analysis: Second Base
Twins Daily Position Analysis: Third Base
Twins Daily Position Analysis: Shortstop
Twins Daily Position Analysis: Left Field
Twins Daily Position Analysis: Center Field
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