The Minnesota Twins need to make starting pitching a priority heading into this offseason. After Kenta Maeda underwent Tommy John surgery, the Twins have no locks in their starting rotation. Although free agency could be a quick fix, a more sustainable method would be finding pitchers via trade and determining which players could be used to acquire them.
If the Twins opt to go the trade route, Max Kepler is an intriguing option. Because he’s in the prime of his career, Kepler is a valuable chip that could be used to acquire a major-league-ready pitcher. While Kepler should be available, what is the best Minnesota reasonably can get in return for him?
It starts with what Kepler brings to a prospective team. Kepler, 28, is hitting .212/.308/.427 with 16 homers in 97 games. While his stats aren’t eye-popping, his value changes when looking at his analytics.
According to Baseball Savant, Kepler ranks in the upper percentiles in most major categories. His best asset at the plate is his patience: His walk rate ranks in the 77th percentile and his chase rate is in the 91st percentile.
Kepler also ranks as one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball. His seven outs above average ranks 13th among outfielders this season and his outfielder jump rate checks in at the 96th percentile.
A player who plays great defense and is two seasons removed from hitting 36 home runs doesn’t come cheap. But Kepler could be expendable because he isn’t as important as Byron Buxton is to the team, and it’s possible the Twins could command a big haul given his team-friendly contract.
The only way it makes sense to deal Kepler is if they can acquire pitching that is either at the major league level or is on the verge of being promoted. One of the first places they should look is the Tampa Bay Rays organization.
The Twins have already done business with the Rays, who have a long history of developing pitchers and selling them to contenders. A player like Brendan McKay would make sense, he’s a lefty who already has major league experience. The Rays always seem to be teeming with young starters, including Shane McClanahan, who has gone 9-4 with a 3.76 ERA this season.
The Twins could also call a team like the Seattle Mariners, who have MLB’s second-best farm system according to Baseball America. Kepler could bolster Seattle’s outfield while Minnesota could tap into their pool of pitching prospects.
The Mariners had discussions with the Twins about José Berríos this summer and could give Minnesota what they need. Emerson Hancock was a pitcher named in the Berríos negotiations while George Kirby could also be a target, although the Twins would have to throw in more than Kepler to land him.
Both pitchers would be expected to make their major league debut next season and fill spots the Twins desperately need to fill.
The final team the Twins should consider is the Atlanta Braves. Atlanta’s outfield depth has been tested throughout this season and superstar Ronald Acuña Jr. might not be ready for next season after suffering a torn ACL.
Although the Braves have Christian Pache and Drew Waters on the way, adding Kepler would give them insurance until Acuña’s return.
The issue is what the Twins would get in return. The Braves have the fifth-best farm system according to Baseball America but don’t have much past their top tier of prospects. That could require the Twins to find a controllable major league talent such as Max Fried, Ian Anderson or Huascar Ynoa, who the Twins sent to Atlanta in the Jaime Garcia trade.
While looking for top prospects doesn’t have a guaranteed success rate, it may be better than diving into the free-agent market. With names like Jon Gray or Marcus Stroman available, the Twins would be better suited to think long-term and try and build a rotation that can learn in 2022 and build a foundation for years to come.