If you’re a greedy Rochester Red Wings baseball fan who can’t get enough long ball and firework-spangled home run trots, then you’re surely hoping standout Minnesota Twins prospect Max Kepler—a 23-year-old German outfielder—makes a stop at Frontier Field this season.
But Kepler has his eyes on the prize. He’s a fierce competitor and a Major League hopeful. He would rather stay far away from Western New York and take up a roster spot on the Major League team.
Currently, Kepler is with the Twins in Fort Myers, Florida. Intra-squad scrimmages have yet to begin, and for Kepler, that means a lot of batting practice. Still, according to Kepler, there is “a lot of competitiveness” at Hammond Stadium, even though the games themselves are weeks away.
Kepler will be with the Twins in Florida for the duration of spring training, but, when asked whether he anticipates he’ll start the early part of the regular season, he was unsure. “I really don’t know, nothing’s set in stone, I just have to go out there and focus on what I can control,” Kepler said.
Some players leapfrog the minor leagues and hit the Majors when they are only 18. Others scrap it out in small cities all around the country until they get their golden opportunity. The journey to the big leagues is different for every player. However, Kepler’s journey, one that culminated in a late season call up to Minnesota in 2015, is more unique than most.
Last season there were only two German-born players on active Major League rosters. That’s about 0.16 percent of the 1,200 player lot. This makes German-born Kepler a clear outlier.
“When I was 15, I considered baseball more of a hobby, “ Kepler reminisced, “then somebody mentioned scouts to me; people actually make a living playing baseball, which I didn’t know.”
For a German to grow up playing baseball, in some sense, is like an American boy growing up playing cricket. It is clear to most that the common athletic endeavor in Germany is soccer. Indeed, the odds of a player of Kepler’s caliber finding baseball and reaching the eyes and ears of a Major League scout is as improbable as an American 15-year-old moving to India on a cricket contract.
As a consequence, whether he deserves it, many onlookers and baseball insiders doubt that Kepler will stand the test of time and succeed at the highest level.
“People look at me and say, ‘oh, this is rare breed.’ They think this isn’t going to last, I can tell by the way people look at me. I’ve dealt with it since high school when everyone else was playing soccer,” the native German said.
The tone of Kepler’s voice changed when he discussed his improbable journey. It’s motivation for him, or, as he said proudly, “I use it as fuel.”
Kepler signed with the Twins organization back in 2009. He remembers receiving a call almost as soon as he became eligible when he turned 16.
“It’s been an up and down ever since,” Kepler said, referring to an elbow injury he sustained in 2013. “It was my first major injury, and I didn’t know how to deal with it, I started looking for a different career.”
Kepler bounced back strong last year. He led the Double-A Minnesota affiliate, the Chattanooga Lookouts, to a Southern League Championship and was named Southern League MVP.
When asked how long until we mention his name with the big-name power hitters of the league, including the likes of Miguel Cabrera, Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Bautista, Kepler said, “I hope this year sometime.”