Is Max Kepler a viable option for the San Diego Padres?

Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

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As of January 8, 2024, The San Diego Padres only have two outfielders on their MLB roster: Jose Azocar and Fernando Tatis Jr.

It doesn’t take an analytical breakdown or statistical deep dive to see that this is a real roster issue that needs to be solved sooner rather than later. Fortunately for San Diego & its fans, with the trades of Luke Railey and Mitch Haniger to Seattle and the Dodgers dropping $23.5 million to Teoscar Hernandez, it appears that the outfield trade market/hot stove is starting to heat up. 

So where and with whom should the Padres make a deal with to get another quality starting outfielder?

The answer to that question may lie in the Twin Cities with OF Max Kepler.

 

Why Kepler Would Work For SD

From just a box-checking and on-paper standpoint, Max Kepler fits about everything the Padres need to a tee. He’s a left-handed hitting corner outfielder who is on a relatively cost-effective deal for the 2024 season that will see him only be paid $10 million. An affordable number for the Padres, who only have roughly $25 million left to spend this offseason before they hit the first luxury tax threshold. 

Adding Kepler would provide an immediate boost to the middle of the Friar’s lineup. Currently, the only actual “power” threat you could say the Padres have that is left-handed is Jake Cronenworth, and to call him a “power guy” is more than generous. 

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When looking at his 23′ numbers, Kelper posted a 2.4 fWAR. 816 OPS, 121 OPS+, with 24 home runs. A respectable set of baseline stats. However, what’s “under the hood” stats-wise makes Max Kepler even more impressive. 

Kepler was in the 75th percentile or better in Chase%, Whiff%, xSlug(.503), xwOBA(.362), Avg. Exit Velo(91.1), Barrel%, and Hard Hit%, per baseball savant. 

A factor in Kepler’s success in 2023 can be traced to a philosophical change in approach at the plate. Some may say his strong play in 2023 can be largely attributed to the banning of the shift, but the numbers suggest that there is more to it. 

The 2023 season saw Kepler make a conscious effort to put the ball in the air more often, as his FB (Fly Ball) % rose from 34% in 22′ to 44% in 23′. Meanwhile, Kepler’s groundball rate went from 46% in 2022 to 38% in 2023. 

The new approach would yield immediate results as his HH (hard hit) % would rise from 40% in 2022 to 48% in 2023 while raising his wRC+ from 95 to 124. His retooled approach would see him swing and miss a bit more, with his K% rising to 22%, but considering how much harder and how much more power he was hitting the ball for, it’s more than an acceptable trade-off. 

Another piece of data Padres fans may appreciate about Kepler is his ability to hit with RISP or during high-leverage at-bats. Something the Padres as a team struggled mightily with last season.

In 2023, Kepler flourished in high-leverage at-bats. In 48 high-leverage plate appearances, he slashed .271/.362/.483 good enough for a .800 OPS., .344 wOBA, and a 120 wRC+. These numbers only improve when looking at his ABs with RISP, as in 109 ABs, Kepler posted a .855 OPS, Slug% .486, and a 135 wRC+, per FanGraphs. 

Along with Kepler’s offensive prowess, the Twins’ outfielder also has a track record for playing sharply defensively. Over his seven years of playing time, he has amassed over 50 DSR while also recording 4 OAA (out’s above average) last season in right field for the Twins, tying him for 4th best among RFs and tied for 11th best among all MLB outfielders.  

 

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Why A Trade May Not Happen & Cause for Concern

In a perfect world, to some, the Padres would have already made this trade. Heck, even according to Dennis Lin of the Athletic, his name has already come up in trade discussions as a name the Friars have looked at. 

So why or what’s the hold-up?

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Well, in trades, it takes two to tango, and the reality is the Padres may be unwilling to trade away or meet the Twins’ asking price. 

With the departure of Sonny Gray and Kenta Maeda this offseason, the Twins need starting pitching. As such, they have made it clear that they are looking for SP in return for trades they would make this offseason. 

With Kepler being a well-established and proven hitter and given the current market on outfielders with a player such as Teoscar Herandez getting a $28 million deal, the asking price for Kepler would be high. 

This means that the Twins would more than likely be asking for arms such as Dylan Lesko or Adam Mazur in return, a price San Diego may be unwilling to meet due to the organization’s redirection/youth-centered movement and their high opinions of their young farmhand arms. This is understandable, given that Kepler would be a rental, as he is an unrestricted free agent after the 2024 season. 

Furthermore, there are a few possible red flags with Kepler. The most prominent is that if he is acquired, he could be a regression candidate moving from the AL to the NL, a theme that MLB players have seen from time to time. Xander Bogerats is an example of this just from one season ago.

Overall, Kepler is a name that could remedy several issues that the 2024 Padres’ roster currently faces. His track record and play speaks for itself. However, given the current market on outfielders and the potential asking price of the Twins, a trade for the right fielder feels like more of a long shot at the moment than a strong possibility. 

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