Baseball teams often look for market inefficiencies when they acquire players. In recent years we’ve seen some teams target players with excellent defense, some spend aggressively in the draft, and some invest in off-the-field talent. By examining these things, we can often extract specific organizational strategies: team X trades controllable players for plenty of prospects; team Y employs a specific draft strategy. It certainly looks like the Minnesota Twins might be employing a new strategy in the international market, as in recent years they’ve expanded their efforts to include Australia, Africa, and Europe.
Max Kepler is perhaps the most high-profile European player the Twins have signed so far, as the Twins inked him for $800,000 back in 2009, which made some noise. His athleticism was crazy, but he came from Germany and had a long way to go. In 2013, Kepler will make the jump to full-season ball, and his prospect status could really take off.
The son of ballet dancers, Kepler is often described as “graceful.” He has a fluid, line-drive swing and power potential. He has some noticeable load in the swing, and it may be something that will inhibit his ability to hit elite velocity, but the power is a legitimate tool with plus potential. Next season should be a real test of Kepler’s offensive upside, as he should move on to the Midwest League, where he’ll see much more advanced pitching.
On the defensive side of the ball, however, Kepler’s upside is questionable. One scout thinks he’s confined to left field because of a fringy-at-best arm. He’s an athletic runner with good instincts, so he could make himself an asset as a left fielder, but being relegated to that position is an obvious knock on his value.
"Baseball isn't very big at all [in South Africa]," Tayler Scott told MLB.com’s Cary Muskat back in February. "There's a few teams down there and a couple players in professional baseball now." Scott came to the United States to pursue a career in baseball. Now, players might not even have to leave South Africa to get signed.
Hein Robb is a lanky left-handed pitcher listed at 6-foot, 185 pounds, though one source says he’s closer to 6-foot-5, 210 pounds. Robb enjoyed a fine season in rookie ball in 2012, tossing 41 innings and striking out 38 while walking 14. The 20-year-old isn’t loaded with tools, but he does have a major league ceiling.
Robb’s fastball is routinely in the low 90s, and there’s still some room for him to fill out. He has the makings of three average secondary offerings: a changeup, curveball, and a slider. The Twins expect Robb to move along as a durable innings eater that can pitch in the middle- or back-end of a rotation eventually. He may never become a household name in the United States, but his ascent up the minor league ladder could help to expand baseball even further in South Africa.
“Advanced feel for pitching for his age; shows feel for sequence, pitch manipulation and pace; solid athlete; repeats delivery well; clean mechanics; stays compact throughout delivery; can move FB to both sides; still learning to elevate FB, works down consistently; can run FB to 90-92 but does not sit there during outings, more consistently 86-88; has some projection in frame/arm action, could see above-average velo in time; CH is well ahead of CB; CH has arm-speed deception, no consistent/significant movement; throws CH for strikes but lacks refined command of pitch; CB is loose and needs considerable work; arm angle may not be conducive to classic CB; tightening into a shorter, harder SL could work down the line; plus-plus makeup; excellent mound presence; competes extremely well; #4 ceiling.”
Given the profile, it’s difficult to imagine Thorpe as having a #4 ceiling, but that’s not really the point. Other teams sign Australians, but most of those teams don’t also sign South Africans or Germans.
The Twins seem to be focusing a bit on international scouting, particularly areas that have not commonly produced many big leaguers. Establishing baseball culturally can and will take years, but kids getting half a million bucks should speed up that process. However, Minnesota hasn’t seen much come from its international efforts…yet. Time will tell us more about these prospects and this process, but the concept of picking big leaguers from a tree that nobody else knows exists is a very exciting one.