One of the biggest surprises in the 2023 Minnesota Twins season has been Max Kepler’s sudden turnaround. Early in the season, many fans and media members were calling for the Twins to send Kepler down or release him. On June 21, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal wrote that “one way to snap the club to attention without disrupting the leadership would be to part with struggling right fielder Max Kepler.” It’s not that hard to see why Rosenthal felt that way. At the end of June, Kepler was hitting .203/.274/.418. At a certain point, a player’s struggles stop being just a small sample size, and plenty of people felt that he was just unable to produce at the plate this season.
But Kepler has been a completely different player since the All-Star break. He has improved at the plate so much over the last two months that he is not only hitting over .200 but over .250 heading into Friday’s game, with a slash line of .251/.321/.482. Kepler has also improved his OPS to .803, which would be the second-best mark of his career, trailing only his 2019 season, when he posted a .855 OPS. On top of the drastically improved average and OPS, Kepler is leading the Twins in homers with 22. Kepler is in the final year of his contract, but he has a $10 million player option. And given how well he’s played, the Twins might pick it up for next season.
If you asked just about anybody during the first half of the season if they thought the Twins should pick up Kepler’s option, they almost certainly would have said no. Kepler was struggling mightily during the opening months. With Alex Kirilloff, Matt Wallner, and Trevor Larnach waiting in the wings, it was basically a matter of time until someone would take his spot. Since then, Kepler’s improved his numbers so drastically that the Twins are almost certainly going to at least consider bringing him back in 2024. It’s a welcome sight to a team that desperately needed more offensive production in the second half.
One of the big questions when it comes to retaining Kepler is whether or not there’s still a fit for him on the roster. The Twins have plenty of young outfielders they could choose from, and they certainly would have a talented outfield even if they chose to move on from Kepler. However, he definitely feels like more of a fit than Joey Gallo at this point, who never had that second-half turnaround from a slow start that Kepler did.
There could be an opening for Kepler if the Twins move on from Gallo this offseason. Gallo has hit plenty of homers this year, he’s only one behind Kepler for the team lead. However, he hasn’t really done too much else, hitting .177/.301/.440 with 142 strikeouts. So if Minnesota parts ways with Gallo, that should free up some space for Kepler to stay on the roster next year.
Whether or not the Twins decide to pick up Kepler’s option next year is uncertain, but he absolutely has shown that he can still contribute at a high level over the past couple of months. He’s come up with some huge hits over the past week, too, with a bases-clearing triple in last Saturday’s win over the New York Mets, then another triple that tied the game at 4-4 in Wednesday’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays. It’s the kind of clutch hitting that Minnesota is going to need as they head toward the end of the regular season and into the playoffs.
In his media availability after the win over the Mets on Saturday, Kepler attributed his second half resurgence to “healthy toes and a healthy mind.” He elaborated on this by saying “when you’re not playing with the pressure of playing catch-up coming off an injury, there’s a lot of things that come into play that factor into playing the game freely — with a free mind.” We’ve seen over the past couple of months what Kepler is capable of when he is able to play the game while fully healthy and free of distractions. The Twins should pick up his option for next year, because a full season with him at the top of his game would give Minnesota a huge boost in 2024.