Passport Prospects: Max Kepler

German wunderkind shows depth of European talent pool

By Ashley Marshall / Special to | January 31, 2013 5:11 AM

Even at age 14, Max Kepler recognized scouts as soon as he saw them.

The bleachers along Berlin's youth baseball fields were often empty, and the teenage prodigy could spot the professional onlookers before they'd even had time to take their seats. As Kepler neared the date when he'd become eligible to sign a professional contract, it wasn't a matter of whether any scouts would turn up but how many and from which big league clubs.

"I was just trying to concentrate on my game on the field," said Kepler. "But there weren't that many people that came to our games, so all of a sudden, you see all of the scouts in their khaki pants and their clipboards.

"I was nervous at first, I didn't know what to expect. Then they started telling me what they were there for and I was honored. I was proud that people came from all over the world to watch me. It just made me want to work harder and keep them coming."

The young German wunderkind didn't disappoint them.

The eldest child of Texas-born dancer Kathy Kepler and Polish amateur soccer player Marek Rozycki -- who met while performing together in the Berlin ballet -- Max started playing baseball at age 6 at the John F. Kennedy School, a bicultural, international school co-governed by the U.S. Embassy.

Soccer is the No. 1 sport in Germany, but as a child, Kepler excelled at tennis and -- after playing Little League on the school field -- baseball.

"I became a Yankees fan, a Derek Jeter fan," he recalled. "I got a pair of Yankee stripes for my seventh birthday from my grandpa and I wore those for four to five years. My mom had to keep cutting the bottom open because I kept growing and I didn't want to give those pants up. Those were like my holy pants -- I just wore them every day, dirty or clean, every day."

Kepler was offered a tennis scholarship at the Steffi Graf Foundation at 7, but after competing intensely for three years, decided he preferred team sports to one-on-one competitions. When he stopped serving as a youth goalkeeper for Hertha Berlin at 11, baseball took center stage. With conflicting game schedules, Kepler had to choose one or the other.

"I played a little bit of everything. I just loved being active," said Kepler. "I wasn't the kind of kid that stayed at home. I just loved being outside, throwing balls, hitting balls. I picked up motions pretty easily.

"It came to a point where I was at the same level of both [soccer and baseball] and I wasn't sure how far I would get in the states with baseball. Soccer is a big sport in Germany, and it probably would have been harder to get somewhere with it than being signed for baseball straight out of Germany, so I chose to go with baseball."

Kepler was a standout first baseman -- mainly, he says, because he's left-handed -- and he joined Germany's youth national team at 13.

He toured the Dominican Republic in his first year at the Deutsche Baseball Akademie, and he received even more attention back home when he was selected to an All-Star tournament in Berlin the following year. On his 15th birthday, Kepler left his parents and 12-year-old sister Emma behind and made the five-hour trip south to Bavaria to enroll in a baseball academy and boarding school in Regensburg.

"The steps had to be made," he said. "It was tough in the beginning and I was homesick a lot. I didn't really know what to do with myself at 15, but it turned out fine. I got to play baseball every day of the week, which I loved. That's the main reason why I went there. They had fitness routines, lifting schedules, personalized programs for everybody. It was an amazing experience and it brought me a lot further in my career."

Surrounded by baseball hopefuls from Italy, the Netherlands and Spain, Kepler blossomed. He made the transition to the outfield and became a standout on the junior national team. With incredible flexibility (his parents instilled the importance of stretching), a projectable 6-foot-4 frame and sharp hand-eye coordination (he taught himself how to drive a golf ball with his sister's small right-handed clubs), the left-handed Kepler became a prized target in Germany.

In 2008 and '09, Kepler played 61 games with Buchbinder Legionare's first and second teams in the Bundesliga's Southern Division. He hit a combined .382 with 40 RBIs, 73 runs scored and 33 stolen bases. He recorded a .554 slugging percentage and 1.038 OPS, drawing the attention of scouts from 16 big league teams, including the Red Sox, Yankees, Mets, Cubs and Twins.

Though there was no lack of potential suitors, Kepler -- who represented Germany in the World Baseball Classic qualifiers last year -- was surprised when the time came to decide on one.

"In the last couple months near my signing date, people started telling me [getting signed] was possible," Kepler said. "I started to flip out.

"I remember my mom calling me after school on my way home. She was sitting down with my agent, my dad and my sister, and they told me I had to make a decision right there and then. I was on the bus going back to the boarding school with my friends and I moved back to one of the quieter seats to focus on what was going on. They named the teams and what they were offering."

Kepler agreed to sign with the Twins, an organization he said had a reputation for working tirelessly with every young player in their system. He also received a bonus of around $800,000, believed to be the highest bonus ever given to a non-drafted European baseball player.

"I was definitely overwhelmed. Everything was going through my head," he recalled. "I was surprised. I would probably have signed for $50,000 just because I love the sport and wanted that opportunity. Having a bonus like that made me the happiest person, and it made me want to work harder each day. It's [life-changing] money, but I have to keep going. I can't be satisfied yet -- never complacent."

If the money was unexpected, Kepler's next trip to the airport was downright surreal. Waiting to check in for his flight from Dusseldorf to Fort Myers ahead of his first year in the Gulf Coast League, Kepler was approached by a stranger who knew his name.

"I was surprised people even knew me," Kepler said. "It was weird, I didn't know what to say at first. He said, 'You're Max Kepler,' and I was like, 'Yeah, that's me,' and I thought he was going to ask which flight I was getting on because I was at the wrong gate or I was going the wrong way. He asked for my autograph and I froze. I tried to process what was going on. After about a minute, I asked for a pen politely. After, I thought about it for the next hour before calling my mom to tell her what happened."

Things didn't ease up when he landed in Florida. As a rookie with the Twins' GCL affiliate in 2010, he remembers that first day inside the clubhouse of the Lee County Sports Complex. "I felt like a big leaguer," he said.

Kepler batted .286 with 11 RBIs in 37 games in the GCL, and the following year in Elizabethton, he hit .262 with 15 extra-base hits and 24 RBIs in 50 Appalachian League contests.

The Twins brought Kepler back to Elizabethton for the 2012 season, and the 19-year-old responded with a breakout year. In 59 appearances, Kepler hit .297 with 10 homers and 40 runs scored. He also smacked 16 doubles, legged out five triples and was 7-for-7 in stolen-base attempts.

He led the league with a .539 slugging percentage and 125 total bases, and he ranked second with 49 RBIs and 31 extra-base hits en route to earning postseason All-Star honors and being named the Topps' Appy League Player of the Year.

"I had a good season and I just want to keep that good vibe going into the next season," said Kepler, who joked about dinnertime pushing and shoving with the four other ballplayers who lived with the same host family in Elizabethton. "I came into the league an oppo [opposite-field] hitter, being fairly slim at 180 and being a pretty fast guy for my size. I'm 220 now -- I gained like 40 pounds -- and I've really learned to pull the ball this last season.

"I'd say the long ball is my thing now. It used to be slapping the ball, getting on base, stealing bases. But I've changed that around and I will keep growing if I stay healthy. I just love running and stealing bases and I hope I don't lose my speed because of my size. I want to be big and fast."

Kepler is not the only German looking to become the first player from his country to make it to the Majors. Reds first baseman Donald Lutz and Mets catcher Kai Gronauer both reached Double-A in 2012, while fellow Twins prospect Markus Solbach and Mariners right-hander Daniel Thieben are expected to tackle Class A in 2013. Lutz and Kepler most recently played together on the national team in the World Baseball Classic qualifiers in Regensburg.

"[Baseball] is growing in every German city I go to. It's still not on the level of soccer -- maybe the same level that soccer is in the states. But it's definitely growing. They've opened two boarding schools in Germany, so there are opportunities for kids to step up the baseball game if they want to. I hope baseball is on the same level as soccer one day in Germany. I've thought about that a lot -- I really want to help make that happen if I can."

Ashley Marshall is a contributor to Follow him on Twitter at @AshMarshallMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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