Are Kirilloff and Larnach Making Kepler Expendable?

Photo Credit: Jordan Johnson (USA TODAY Sports)

With the unexpected struggles the Minnesota Twins have faced this season, questions abound about what this team could do to get back into contention. While they face an uphill struggle to make the playoffs this season, if they want to compete next year they will need to solidify their outfield.

Byron Buxton has found himself on the injured list again, but he has discovered the power in his bat. He has hit nine home runs in just 24 games and is on pace to shatter his record of 16 in 140 games when he gets back in the lineup. He also is hitting career highs in batting average (.370) and OPS (1.180) in this 24-game sample size. Locking up Buxton long-term should be this team’s No. 1 priority this offseason.

Alex Kirilloff has also started to impress during his rookie campaign. Before his wrist injury, he remedied a rocky start to the season in the Kansas City Royals series, where he went deep four times in three games. After a rough start, he has been able to raise his OPS to .750.

And Kirilloff isn’t the only young outfielder who has impressed. Trevor Larnach, a 2018 first-round pick, has shown promise since being called up in early May. In just 15 games, Larnach has posted a .213 batting average and showcased the pop in his bat with two home runs, including the longest one of the season — a 461-foot monster shot that found its way to the Delta Sky 360 Suite.

Larnach is only the seventh player ever to hit a ball there, and he did it off of perhaps the hottest pitcher in all of baseball, Baltimore Orioles lefty John Means, who was only three starts removed from a no-hitter.

Given how well both Larnach and Kirilloff have played, if the Twins are sellers at the trade deadline, could they look to move on from Max Kepler?

Kepler signed a five-year, $35 million deal in 2019. After posting career highs in home runs (36), RBI (90), batting average (.252), and OPS (.855) during the first year of his contract, the Twins appeared to have gotten a steal. It wasn’t unrealistic to expect another jump in play from Kepler. Maybe he could hit the 40 home run mark.

However, in the pandemic-shortened 60-game season, Kepler regressed.

While it is unfair to judge Kepler on a 48-game sample size, he was off to an uninspired start to this season, playing hopscotch with the Mendoza line for a good part of the first month and a half of the year. He also struggled to find the power in his bat this season, it took him just over five weeks in this season to go yard, and he has also relapsed against left-handed pitchers — hitting a measly .171 against them.

Encouragingly, his exit velocity is the highest it’s ever been, 91.5 miles per hour, but it hasn’t translated to results for a good part of the season. Kepler has been performing much better with the bat recently. In his last seven games, he is hitting .308 and has elevated his batting average to .217 and his OPS to .763 despite a hamstring injury that has limited his appearances and given players like Kyle Garlick and Rob Refsnyder more playing time.

Kepler’s time away from the field can serve as an important period where the Twins learn what they really have in Kirilloff and, more importantly, Larnach. It can serve not only as a good time to gauge their offensive capabilities along with their defensive abilities to see if they are ready for a spot in the everyday lineup.

Given the fact that Kepler, Larnach, and Kirilloff are all left-handed-hitting corner outfielders, the Twins might decide to sell high on Kepler this season and stock up on prospects as they look to Larnach and Kirilloff to man the corner outfield positions. Now that we know that Larnach and Kirilloff can fill in, along with players like Garlick and Brent Rooker, Minnesota can ride Kepler’s recent good form and sell high on him and add more highly touted prospects to their farm system as they look to keep pace with the Chicago White Sox next season.

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