La Velle E. Neal III: Time for Twins to replace Kepler with Wallner or Larnach

Tribune Content Agency

MINNEAPOLIS — Boos were heard Sunday after Max Kepler struck out in the seventh inning against Cleveland righthander Trevor Stephan and again when he grounded out in the ninth against closer Emmanuel Clase.

The way things have been going for the Twins offense this season, several other players could be targets for fan disappointment.

For Kepler, it’s an indictment of what he’s become as a hitter.

Defensively, he’s excellent in right field and provides value in that area. But he shouldn’t be a specialist. The day the Twins signed him as part of what was then an impressive international prospect class in 2009, the comparisons to Shawn Green — in terms of his frame, swing and offensive potential — began. Comparisons are unfair when evaluating teenagers who have yet play a minor league game, but it’s what the baseball cognoscenti do. And the Twins were high on Kepler.

Twins manager Rocco Baldelli, because of injuries and illnesses, batted Kepler in the cleanup spot on Sunday against Cleveland. When your cleanup hitter has a .660 OPS, that shows how limited your options are. Kepler responded by going 0-for-4 as the Twins lost 2-1 for their whopping 11th one-run loss, third most in the American League.

Kepler is not a cleanup hitter. Frankly, it’s hard to determine where in a batting order he should hit.

Now he heads into a week of big games at Tampa Bay and Toronto in a 3-for-31 skid that has pulled his batting average down to .192. He’s not driving pitches and he struggles hitting fastballs. He entered Sunday batting .138 against four-seam fastballs and .176 against sinkers. And that’s not an outlier. In 2022, he hit .185 against four-seamers — although he fared much better against sinkers, hitting .340.

But his struggles go farther back than 2022. Kepler appeared headed for stardom in 2019 when he batted .252 with 36 home runs and 96 RBI while producing a productive OPS of .855. The Twins appeared to be clairvoyant then, as they signed Kepler during that spring training to a five-year, $35 million deal. Kepler inked that deal the same day the club extended Jorge Polanco, who was part of the same international class and was his roommate during his first year of professional ball. Polanco has become a reliable hitter and was an All-Star in 2019. Kepler has not.

Since that promising 2019 campaign, Kepler has batted .217 with 43 home runs over 319 games. His post-2019 OPS is .698. This is his age-30 season and he’s four years removed from his best form.

The Twins are at, or should be at, an inflection point in their relationship with Kepler. He’s making $8.5 million in the final guaranteed year of his contract. There is a club option for 2024 at $10 million which almost certainly won’t be picked up.

They need offense. If they looked outside the organization for a bat, right field would be a good place to put it — although the Joey Gallo detractors would point to left. I’m for playing Byron Buxton in center and freeing up the designated hitter role for any bat, but his recent knee soreness gives me pause.

There are in-house candidates emerging in prospects Matt Wallner and Trevor Larnach. Wallner doubled twice on Sunday for Class AAA St. Paul and is batting .423 in six games since being unfairly sent down. Larnach has begun a rehabilitation assignment at St. Paul following a bout with pneumonia that occurred just when he was starting to heat up at the plate.

Either one looks like a better option than Kepler, whose best role for the final four months of his last contract year could be backing up all three outfield spots — if the Twins don’t just cut ties with him altogether.

The club needs to address its 6-11 record in one-run games and their woeful success with the bases loaded. They have been one swing away in several games during the first two months of the season, with Kepler one of the leading culprits.

Kepler isn’t making progress. Therefore, he should make way for progress.