Max Kepler Has Drawn Trade Interest

Twins outfielder Max Kepler has drawn trade interest, according to Aaron Gleeman and Dan Hayes of The Athletic. The report doesn’t list any specific teams that are interested in Kepler, nor does it say that the Twins are actively shopping him. But the fact that Kepler’s name has come up in conversations is noteworthy nonetheless.

Kepler, 30 in February, has spent his entire career in the Twins organization thus far, having been signed by them back in 2009 at the age of 16. He made it to the majors by 2015 and proved to be a serviceable player in his first few seasons. His bat was slightly subpar at that time, as he was hitting .233/.313/.417 at the end of the 2018 season, which included 1,633 plate appearances. That production was 5% below league average, as indicated by his 95 wRC+. However, he was still able to produce value with his speed and defense, as all of Defensive Runs Saved, Ultimate Zone Rating and Outs Above Average looked fondly upon his work on the grass.

Going into 2019, with Kepler having just turned 26, the Twins took a gamble on him by signing him to a five-year, $35MM extension. There was certainly risk involved since Kepler had yet to show above-average capabilities at the plate, but he came with a solid floor from the baserunning and glovework. After one year of that deal, he made the Twins look like geniuses. He hit 36 home runs and produced an overall slash line of .252/.336/.519 for a wRC+ of 122. FanGraphs calculated him to be worth 3.8 wins above replacement on the year.

He hasn’t been able to maintain that level of production, however. He slipped to a wRC+ of 109 in 2020 and then 97 and 95 in the two seasons after that. Those aren’t disastrous numbers and he’s still strong in other areas. Despite below-average work with the bat in each of the past two seasons, he still produced 2.3 fWAR in 2021 and 2.0 this year.

Kepler is now entering the final guaranteed season of that aforementioned extension, where he will make a salary of $8.5MM with a $10MM club option for 2024 that has a $1MM buyout. That level of pay is more than reasonable for a solid outfielder, though it’s unlikely to give him tremendous trade value. As mentioned by Gleeman and Hayes, though Kepler is receiving interest, it’s not enough for him “to be the centerpiece of a deal bringing back a prominent player.”

There are some parallels to Hunter Renfroe, another good-but-not-elite corner outfielder. Over the past couple of seasons, Renfroe has produced 4.5 fWAR, right in the same range as the 4.3 that Kepler produced. He’s going into his final season of arbitration eligibility and is projected by MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz for an $11.2MM salary. The Brewers recently traded him to the Angels for three young pitchers, none of whom were especially highly rated by prospect evaluators.

Kepler is arguably a more attractive target than Renfroe since the 2024 club option provides a bit of upside should he find that higher gear that he had in 2019, but he’s not likely to net a huge return. However, the Twins might entertain trade offers regardless because their outfield picture is somewhat crowded. Byron Buxton should have center field locked down as long as he’s healthy, while Trevor Larnach, Alex Kirilloff, Kyle Garlick, Gilberto Celestino, Royce Lewis, Nick Gordon, Matt Wallner and Mark Contreras are also in the mix to varying degrees. Many of those players dealt with injuries in 2022 and aren’t guarantees to be healthy next year, but that’s still a lot of candidates for two corner outfield jobs and the designated hitter slot. Those players all still have years of cheap control remaining, as none of them have reached the three-year service mark so far. Kepler is more established than any of them but his higher salary and proximity to free agency make him a more logical trade candidate for Minnesota.

The Twins shouldn’t be tight for cash right now, though that could change. Roster Resource pegs their 2023 payroll at just $98MM at the moment. Last year, they opened the season at $134MM, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts, which leaves them plenty of wiggle room. However, they have apparently made multiple offers to Correa with varying lengths and salaries. It was one year ago that he and the team made a surprising connection on a three-year deal that saw him paid $35.1MM annually, but with the opt-out that he eventually triggered. If they were to reconnect on anything in that salary range, their payroll would suddenly be right back in line with last year’s spending. If money is suddenly tight, trading Kepler could be away of trimming a few bucks while simultaneously addressing other target areas such as the catching corps or the bullpen.

Though no specific teams have been connected to Kepler, it stands to reason that his market would largely overlap with other left-handed hitting outfielders like Brandon Nimmo, Andrew Benintendi, Michael Conforto and Cody Bellinger. The Cubs already landed Bellinger and Nimmo is going back to the Mets, but some other teams that have been interested in that group include the Blue Jays, Giants, Astros and many others. Bellinger reportedly had 11 teams interested in his services at one point, according to Jon Heyman of The New York Post. Any team that fails to line up on Benintendi or Conforto could theoretically look to Kepler as a backup plan, though they could also call the Diamondbacks, who are likely to deal from their own outfield surplus.

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