Since the Boston Red Sox swung a deal with the Milwaukee Brewers to send out Hunter Renfroe right before the lockout, all of the talk around here and elsewhere in Red Sox fandom has been about the newfound hole in the outfield. Given the timing immediately preceding transaction limbo, it makes sense that the focus has been there, and most every free agent target has been at least mentioned by now. I still stand by Seiya Suzuki being the top target, but it’s worth considering that Boston could look to the trade market rather than free agency to fill the hole.
That brings us to Max Kepler, who has been the right fielder for the Minnesota Twins over roughly the last half-decade or so. It’s not entirely clear where that franchise is heading in the short-term, but after a very disappointing 2021, selling off for prospects feels like a path they will at least be exploring. And if so, Kepler, who is under team control for three more seasons, may be the kind of player they’d look at shopping.
Kepler was originally signed by the Twins organization as a teenager back in 2009, coming out of Germany and receiving the largest signing bonus to a European-born prospect. He finally made it up to the majors for a short cup of coffee in 2015 before beginning his career in earnest in 2016. The right fielder hovered around league-average for the first few years of his career before tightening his plate discipline and adding a bit more power, putting up above-average seasons at the plate in 2019 and 2020, the first of which was a 4.5-win season by FanGraphs WAR.
That brings us to this past season, which is part of the reason Kepler may be an intriguing trade candidate. It was a step back for the now-28-year-old (he’ll turn 29 before the scheduled start of spring training), who finished the season hitting .211/.306/.413 for a 95 wRC+. It’s a down season for a corner outfielder, to be sure, but an optimist may look at that line and see this as a chance to buy low on a quality player.
There is a fair argument for that to be the case, too. Kepler has built himself into the kind of hitter with a very solid floor at the plate, as he’s always going to hit for power, draw walks, and make contact. If you do that, good things will happen. In each of the last three seasons, he’s finished with an Isolated Power over .200. (League-average in 2021 was .167.) He’s also struck out less than 20 percent of the time in each of the last four seasons, and has a double-digit walk rate in each of those years as well. Those numbers include 2021, too.
The issue for Kepler last year, and to some degree over his entire career, was an inability to convert batted balls into hits. He has never finished a season with a batting average on balls in play over .276, and if we shorten the sample size back to 2018, he hasn’t been above .244. He just doesn’t hit a lot of singles types of batted balls, with a relatively low line drive rate and a high pull rate. That said, his .225 BABIP in 2021 seems to be near the floor, and there’s a lot to work with getting a hitter with his power and plate discipline.
This is all without even talking about his defense, which has been outstanding by the metrics. He’s been well above-average statistically in right field, and even in his time in center field he’s been anywhere from fine to good. The Red Sox would like to have good defense in right field, and Kepler can provide that.
We should also mention this is all while counting as $7 million towards the luxury tax over the next two seasons, as he had already been locked in by the Twins on a long-term deal. There’s also a team option after that for 2024, which will be his age-31 season, for $10 million. If the Red Sox can unlock more consistency for Kepler and keep his production above-average on a year-to-year basis, that’s a very team-friendly deal. This would, in theory, save money to add impact talent somewhere else, perhaps at second base or in the rotation.
The downside here is two-fold. One piece that goes against what the Red Sox want to do is that Kepler is left-handed. Chaim Bloom has noted he is looking for right-handed help in the lineup, not to mention that fact that hitting for power as a lefty at Fenway is not as easy as many seem to believe. Still, for me the talent and contract is enough to overlook that situation. I think Kepler can still put up good numbers, Fenway or no.
It’s not just about that, though. The big downside for a trade in general as opposed to a free agent signing is that it costs prospects, and often you’d rather give up money, especially from the outside. That said, the Red Sox have a deeper farm system now to take advantage of, and if they can’t land Suzuki the result would be sacrificing defense with the other options. And coming off the down year, Boston shouldn’t have to pay a huge premium in prospect cost. Coming up with trade packages is far from my favorite thing, but I would wager something like Jeter Downs, Wilkelman Gonzalez, and Hudson Potts would at least the conversation rolling, and while it’s not a small price it’s something I’d be willing to entertain.
Like I said, this wouldn’t be my top option, and there are some downsides with Kepler potentially being the target. On the other hand, he should be able to be landed without giving up one of the elite prospects, he’s under team control for three more years at a team-friendly price covering a good chunk of his prime, and the base foundations of plate discipline and power have consistently been present in his career. Good front offices have plans A, B, C, and so on for all of their directions in the offseason. Kepler doesn’t have to be the top target, but he’s a good option to have in mind if you need to make an early pivot.