MINNEAPOLIS — Max Kepler was too tall to follow in the footsteps of his parents, both of whom were professional ballet dancers. And growing up in Germany, a country that embraces soccer, Kepler eventually gave up that sport.
The Minnesota Twins are glad he did.
Instead of dancing or making a living with his feet, Kepler opted to play baseball at the urging of his mother. He attended an international school in Berlin and was drawn to traditional American sports like football, lacrosse and eventually, baseball.
"I found more interest for it because it’s a foreign sport in Germany," Kepler said last month at TwinsFest, his first time ever visiting Minnesota.
Kepler would stay up late at night to watch Major League Baseball games, which wasn’t always easy given the time difference between Berlin and the United States. He liked Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, but otherwise didn’t know many specific players.
By the time Kepler was 15 years old, he started catching the eyes of major league scouts. That included Andy Johnson, a Twins scout based in Norway who kept the pulse of baseball in Europe. What he saw in Kepler was a raw product — the Berlin native didn’t have the opportunity to play as much baseball as his peers in North America — but he was a kid who appeared to be projectable.
With that, the Twins signed him in 2009 to an $800,000 bonus, which at the time was the largest ever given to a European player. Now 20, Kepler is working his way through Minnesota’s minor league rankings with the hopes of taking the seldom-traveled path from Germany to the big leagues.
"Hopefully in the next two years," Kepler said when asked when he thought he might reach the majors. "Honestly, I’m ready at whatever position. First, I need some polishing because I’m new. But I’m hungry to see what’s up there."
It’s important to remember that Kepler is still a bit raw given the amount he played in Germany before he moved to Fort Myers, Fla., as a 17-year-old. Brad Steil, the Twins’ director of minor league operations, noted that Kepler’s case is different than other young players — even international prospects — that Minnesota has signed over the years.
"Maybe there’s more risk there, but there might also be more upside," Steil said. "You know with those types of guys that you’re going to be looking at a longer timeline in their development just because there’s some catching up they have to do since they haven’t played the game as much."
Kepler was hampered by an elbow injury in 2013 that delayed the start of his season until June 20, when he made his debut with Low-A Cedar Rapids. In 61 games with the Kernels, Kepler hit .237/.312/.424 with nine home runs and 40 RBI. The 6-foot-4 Kepler also showed his versatility on defense, playing both first base and outfield.
After ending the season in Cedar Rapids, Kepler took part in the Arizona Fall League, where he batted .234 with four RBI in 18 games. The numbers might not jump off the page, but the experience was a valuable one for Kepler as he continues to work on his game.
"You’ve got to stay patient, definitely. I’m learning from my mistakes," Kepler said. "It wouldn’t be exciting if there was no challenge. Me getting moved to first (base), me having to fight through an injury this year was definitely a challenge. It wasn’t the year I was expecting, but I’m learning from it and I have it behind me now."
Max Kepler watches the action at 2013 Twins Spring Training.
As Kepler was hanging out in the visiting clubhouse at Target Field late last month during TwinsFest, he crossed paths with Minnesota skipper Ron Gardenhire. It turns out the 20-year-old Kepler and the man he hopes will soon be his manager have something in common: they were both born in Germany. Gardenhire’s father was in the military so the family moved around a lot, and he was born in Butzbach, on the other side of the country from Berlin. The two swapped stories and a few words of German before going their separate ways. Kepler hopes they’ll be reunited at Target Field soon.
Kepler said he’s been told he’ll start the year at High-A Fort Myers as he takes the next jump up the minor league ladder. The Twins clearly think highly enough of their German import to place him on the 40-man roster, which took place this offseason.
While Kepler may not crack anybody’s Top 100 prospects list like Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano or Alex Meyer, the Twins are hoping that their investment in Kepler will prove to be wunderbar.
"Max is a really good kid and he works hard. He’s a competitive guy. He’s continuing to mature," Steil said. "He’s still a young kid. We got him at 17, so it probably seems like we’ve had him a long time already. Coming from Germany, not playing a lot of baseball or as much baseball growing up as maybe kids in the U.S. play, I think there’s still a lot for him to learn and there’s a lot of room for him to get better."