Andy Johnson, a Minnesota Twins scout based in Kristiansand, Norway, was walking past a baseball diamond at a tournament in Germany when a tall 14-year-old sprinting down the first-base line caught his eye. Johnson hadn't planned on stopping to watch, but his scouting instincts took over when he glanced at Max Kepler.
"Max was tall, lanky and very fluid," Johnson said. "He was young for that tournament, but you just saw athleticism. His athleticism really stuck out from the other players."
Minnesota signed Kepler in 2009 as a 16-year-old for $775,000, the biggest bonus ever for a position player outside the United States and Latin America. The 6-foot-4, 180-pound left-hander began his career the next year in the Gulf Coast League, followed by two seasons with Elizabethton in the Appalachian League, and is currently patrolling center field for the Cedar Rapids Kernels.
"For me, athletically, Max was the best," Johnson said. "I saw Greg Halman when he was 15, and he was pretty athletic. Max was a different type of athletic. He wasn't as powerful, but he was a little more fluid and more graceful. Halman was more explosive.
"Athletically, Max is right there. The physical attributes and the tools are there, which definitely allow him to grow. From reading our game reports, you can see the growth in maturity and presence at the plate. He's becoming more of a baseball player every day."
Kepler is hitting .263 with four homers and 19 RBIs in the 30 Midwest League games after being held back for more than two months in extended spring training due to a forearm strain. Kepler caught up quickly after arriving in Cedar Rapids, but then again, catching up and passing the competition is one of his gifts.
"When guys come from Europe, they're probably a little bit behind the curve when you compare them to Latin players or American players who have probably played against better competition, but Max adjusted really quickly," Twins farm director Brad Steil said. "It's not easy coming to a new country when you're 17 years old and competing against talented baseball players. He's done a good job of adapting. He's an athletic kid. He's developed into a strong kid. Max is a smart kid. Whatever gap was there, he made that up pretty quickly."
Kepler's mother is from San Antonio. She joined the Berlin ballet in 1984, where she met her husband, ballet dancer Marek Rozycki, a native of Poland.
"My mom really got me into baseball," said Kepler, who was once offered a scholarship to the Steffi Graf Tennis Foundation. "She was putting me in all kinds of sports to see what I would like. I played baseball for a public team and had a great coach. I had great coaches with every team I played for in Germany."
Kepler's forearm strain was a tough test for the 20 year old.
"[The injury] was thought to be healed a month after it happened, but I ended up being sent back a couple of times," Kepler said. "It ended up being two and a half months in extended spring. Injuries are part of baseball. I'm glad to be part of the team now.
"It was frustrating during rehab. You have to be patient. Once I was with the team, I was really happy to be back. I think I was putting pressure on myself, because I was back on the field and excited and nervous about everything. I lost two months, and catching up was tough."
Capitalizing on his ability to learn quickly, Kepler made an immediate impact for the Kernels.
"I tend to pick up sports naturally since I've been young," Kepler said. "I like to think of myself as a student of the game, because I'm always learning new things. I'm just trying to get better at what I do and try to learn new things every day, every week. I try to develop new skills that I don't possess right now."
Kepler also hopes to make an impact on German baseball.
"When I was there this winter, we had a lot more camps for kids who wanted to start baseball," Kepler said. "Soccer is a big sport there right now, but baseball is growing. I hope it keeps growing. One of my biggest goals is to help baseball become bigger in Germany. People love the game there."
Major rehabs: Detroit second baseman Omar Infante and left-handed reliever Darin Downs were both assigned to West Michigan for rehab. Infante, who played for West Michigan back in 2000, went 1-for-3 in his first game for the Whitecaps on Wednesday. Prior to suffering a sprained left ankle July 3, Infante was hitting .309 in 76 games for the Tigers. Downs, on the DL since July 7 with rotator cuff tendonitis in his left shoulder, was 0-2 with a 5.18 ERA for Detroit and has not yet appeared for the Whitecaps.
Huge comeback: Dayton rallied from an 8-1 deficit for a 10-9 victory against the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers on Monday. The Dragons scored four runs in the bottom of the eighth inning to take the lead, and left-fielder Jesse Winker made a game-ending diving catch with a runner on third to seal the victory.
Whiff city: Peoria pitchers posted 19 strikeouts against West Michigan on Monday, one shy of the franchise record set July 9, 2005, against Clinton. Cory Jones (7-1) struck out 12 without allowing a walk, Dixon Llorens fanned all six batters he faced and closer Zach Russell had one strike out in one inning.