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The Kepler Question: Should the Twins trade their starting right-fielder?

Max Kepler is often mentioned as a prime trade candidate. But should he be moved?

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MLB: Minnesota Twins at Houston Astros
Should the Twins trade Max Kepler, or hold on to him for now?
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Max Kepler is often mentioned as the most likely trade candidate for the Minnesota Twins.

On the surface, it makes sense. Kepler’s offense has declined in each of the last three seasons while his salary has increased. He’s heading into his age-30 season with a host of young corner-outfield talent waiting in the wings, including former first-round draft picks Trevor Larnach, Alex Kirilloff, and Matt Wallner. Of course Kepler could be available.

The most important question, however, is what could Kepler fetch via trade, and is it worth the cost savings to potentially sell low on Kepler with two years left on his contract?

What is Max Kepler’s trade value?

Kepler will make $8.5 million in 2023, his age-30 season, and will pull down $10 million in his age-31 campaign, the final year on his current contract.

Kepler has settled in as a slightly below-average offensive contributor but a solid above-average fielder. Overall, he’s a net positive, and there’s a solid chance that he can justify his contract in 2023.

There’s also the potential upside. Yes, Kepler is heading toward the late-middle years of his prime, but he’s still only three seasons removed from 36 home runs and a .855 OPS for the Bomba Squad, and only two years removed from a solidly above-average offensive campaign in the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season.

Kepler almost surely has positive trade value, given that he’s a net-plus player on a reasonable salary. He’s a relatively platoon-proof player at this point, too. While on the wrong side of 30, there’s undoubtedly still pop in the bat and $18.5 million over the next couple of years is hardly cost-prohibitive.

What is Kepler’s value to the Twins?

Because the Twins have a host of corner outfield prospects, Kepler seems a bit superfulous on the roster.

On the one hand, if the Twins end up re-signing Carlos Correa and adding an expensive piece or two to the starting rotation, Kepler would seem to be that much more valuable. Even if he continues a modest downward trend at the plate, he’s still a plus defender and a strong baserunner, and is basically a sure thing.

On the other hand, that extra $8.5 million could go a long way for the Twins. If the club believes that Larnach/Kirilloff/Wallner can give them, say, 80% of what Kepler could provide at a fraction of the cost, plus the upside of a potential break out from any of the young talent, then the salary would be better spent on pitching, or perhaps a catcher.

For Minnesota, it comes down to you if you think you can get to at least Kepler’s baseline performance with a combination of other guys, and you have a strong plan to spend the money elsewhere.

Why keeping Kepler (for now) might be the best move

The best decision the Twins could make might just be to keep Kepler — for now.

After all, Kepler is one of those players who always feels like he should be on the verge of breaking out. The 2019 campaign gave everyone good reason to believe that he could be turning into a star, and the weird BABIP (batting average on balls in play) “luck” has continued as well, although at this point it feels less like luck and more like approach, but ... there has to be at least a team or two out there that still believes Kepler can be more than a slightly above-average everyday right-fielder.

The Twins are no doubt testing the market for Kepler, and according to The Athletic (subscription required), they are receiving trade interest. But if they don’t think they’re getting requisite value back, there’s no reason they must trade him now.

Why not plug Kepler back into right field on Opening Day 2023 and see what happens? If he plays well but one or two of the prospects play well in spot duty early or at Triple-A St. Paul, Kepler could have even more trade value as the trade deadline draws closer. There’s always next offseason, too, when Kepler will just have one year and $10.5 million left on his deal. There’s an argument to be made that trading Kepler now could be selling low.

It’s unclear that there’s even a wrong answer here. As long as they don’t completely give Kepler away and then fail to replicate most of his production in 2023, there are a lot of potential solutions that could work.

Sitting here right now, it seems as though the “wait and see” approach may just be the way to go. Remember, this is a team that wants to compete next year, and Kepler is as much of a sure thing as a solid everyday player as there can be. The upside of Larnach, Kirilloff, and Wallner isn’t going to disappear in the next few months, and the Twins could perhaps find a way to enjoy the best of all worlds.