The Yankees have not been idle by any means thus far this offseason. Early in free agency, they brought Anthony Rizzo back to play first base and in December, old friend Tommy Kahnle returned to the bullpen. Then, after leaving us all on pins and needles, they got Aaron Judge to sign on the dotted line, making the reigning MVP and home run king a Yankee for life. Just days ago, they lured southpaw Carlos Rodón to the Bronx with a long contract of his own.
That said, there is still room to improve. There seems to be a hole in left field, where trade deadline acquisition Andrew Benintendi will not be returning for 2023. While the Yankees could trot switch-hitting revelation Oswaldo Cabrera out as the full-time left fielder, that would seem to negate one of his biggest strengths, his ability back up every position except center field and catcher. So who’s out there who could play left field? Perhaps the Minnesota Twins would part with Max Kepler.
2022 Stats: 115 games, 446 PA, .227/.318/.348, 9 HR, 43 RBI, 95 wRC+, 2.0 fWAR
2023 Contract Status: Will earn $8.5MM in 2023, has $10MM club option for 2024
At first glance, Kepler’s bat does not jump off the page. In his career, he has precisely one full season with a wRC+ above league average (122 in 2019). Otherwise, he’s been remarkably consistent (and mediocre), with his other five full seasons between 93 and 98 wRC+, otherwise known as “right around league average.”
Despite the less-than-gaudy statistics, there are underlying metrics that suggest room for improvement. To start, Kepler hits the ball hard, and has for his entire career. His maximum exit velocity has never ranked below the 74th percentile, and Kepler is coming off a season where he finished in the 93rd percentile.
In general, Statcast really likes Kepler. His page is liberally littered with red ink from ranking in the upper half of baseball in virtually all of Statcast’s metrics.
Kepler may also be playing in the wrong park for his left-handed swing. In every season of his career, his actual home run total comes in under his expected home run total if he played 81 games a year in the Bronx. In 2022 for example, his 9 home runs translate to an estimated 14 expected bombs if he had been in pinstripes.
But even if Kepler’s bat never reaches the ceiling that underlying metrics suggest is possible, his outfield defense is spectacular, making him a valuable player regardless of his bat. Despite finishing the 2022 season below average at the plate, his glovework still led him to accumulate 2.0 fWAR.
And 2022 was no aberration. Kepler’s defense has ranked in the 92nd percentile or higher in Outs Above Average in every full season of his career, including a career-best 97th percentile finish this past season. With Harrison Bader patrolling center field and Aaron Judge holding down the fort in right, a Yankees outfield with Kepler would theoretically provide elite defense at all three positions. It’s worth noting that he’s mostly a career right fielder with no experience since the minor leaguers in 2015, so there would be an adjustment period, but his overall defensive prowess commands attention regardless.
A Kepler acquisition should not break the bank, either. There is no long-term risk involved, with the lefty entering the final season of his five-year contract with Minnesota, though the pact includes a club option for a sixth season. Moreover, given the lack of team control and Kepler’s mediocre offensive numbers, the Yankees should not have to part with much in the way of prospect capital to bring Kepler to the Bronx.
Acquiring Kepler (or someone else, for that matter) would have a secondary effect in that it would enable manager Aaron Boone to use the aforementioned Cabrera to maximum flexibility. Rather than pencil Cabrera into the lineup every day in left, Oswaldo could play the type of super-utility role the Yankees originally envisioned for DJ LeMahieu when they signed him from Colorado ... except even more so, as Cabrera can play both corner outfield spots in addition to the infield.
All told, a trade for Kepler would not be the splashiest move the Yankees could make to acquire a full-time left fielder. It seems like a pretty low-risk acquisition, given that Kepler’s defensive value would likely make him a useful player even if his bat never progresses past its current level. Granted, it’s also probably a low-ceiling move. Kepler will turn 30 prior to Opening Day, and it seems unwise to bet on him having an offensive breakout this deep into his career.
The Yankees are undoubtedly turning over every stone in their pursuit to improve. Given their financial expenditures this offseason, the club seems determined to win. If they think Kepler can make the Yankees better, perhaps we’ll see him ply his trade in the Bronx.