Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A title-winning core

Two Twins minor-league affiliates played Monday night for championships. The Cedar Rapids Kernels lost by one run to the West Michigan Whitecaps for the low A Midwest League title; the Chattanooga Lookouts beat Biloxi for the Double A Southern League crown.

Cedar Rapids' proximity and the presence of Nick Gordon not withstanding, the Chattanooga team is the more interesting and important to fans of the major league team, and not only because it's two rungs higher on the ladder. Chattanooga was loaded this year, stuffed in large part with the players who won the Florida State League title in 2014 and the Appy League title in 2012. (That same group lost in the Midwest League playoff in 2013 to an equally-loaded Quad Cities squad.)

Even with the midseason promotions of the likes of Miguel Sano, Jose Berrios and Byron Buxton, the Lookouts were still loaded. Max Kepler was the Southern League player of the year. Adam Brett Walker hammered 31 homers (and struck out 195 times). Jorge Polanco spent much of the season at shortstop next to former first round pick Levi Michael. For much of the first half of the season, manager Doug Mientkiewicz could run out lineups with nine likely future major leaguers.

The seven players who were on the roster for all three titles, as listed by Mike Berardino: outfielders Kepler, Walker and Travis Harrison; first baseman D.J. Hicks; infielder Niko Goodrum; and pitchers Brett Lee and B.J. Baxendale.

The immensely talented Kepler, who has been on the 40-man roster for two seasons, was immediately called up to the big-league club after Monday's game. I don't expect the German to get much playing time unless and until the Twins are ousted from the playoff picture, but he'll get a taste of it these next two weeks.

He's 22, a left-handed hitter and thrower. the offspring of two world-class ballet dancers (mom from Texas, dad from Poland, both were performing in Berlin) who was signed in the same summer as Sano and Polanco. He has the speed to play center -- once Buxton was moved up, Kepler got the bulk of the center field time -- but has had some elbow problems in the past. He played all three outfield spots for Chattnooga and has considerable first base time as well.

Growing up in Germany didn't afford Kepler much exposure to quality competition as a kid, and it took him a while to catch up to his peers. But he certainly had a breakout year this season.

On a team with Buxton and Aaron Hicks, Kepler's not going to play center field. With the elbow issues on his resume, I suspect he's best suited for left field or first base, and the Twins have Joe Mauer at first base with three more years on his contract. I also suspect that of the four young outfielders -- Buxton, Hicks, Eddie Rosario and Kepler -- that Kepler may emerge as best hitter.

The Twins have time to sort out that alignment.

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