The Salt River Rafters made the trip across to the west side of the Phoenix area to Surprise, Arizona, on Wednesday to take on the Surprise Saguaros and, prior to the game, Twins prospects Max Kepler and Tyler Rogers took the time to answer a few questions.
Kepler takes a .289/.385/.422 slash line in to Thursday night’s game in Salt River, which is respectable for any hitter in the Arizona Fall League, but is perhaps even more impressive for a 21-year-old with no experience above the Class A level.
He’s happy with his performance, so far.
“I think I’m playing consistent ball,” Kepler said. “I’m playing solid outfield defense. Yeah, doing everything I can right now.”
Players in this league have been playing ball since minor league spring training started at the beginning of March, and Kepler confirmed that the wear and tear on the body starts to catch up with them this time of year.
“Yeah, it has (been a long year),” Kepler admitted, but he quickly added, “It’s been an awesome year, though.”
This is Kepler’s second year in the Arizona Fall League and he said he’s definitely seeing a difference in his game this time around.
“I’m more confident. I feel more confident against the pitchers,” Kepler reflected. “Last year, coming out of low-A ball, I just felt like all these big names were throwing at me and I was just a little guy in the big ocean. (They were) big dudes. Now I just feel like I can handle it.”
Kepler has been part of two minor league championship teams in his past three years of minor league ball, winning titles with Elizabethton in 2012 and in Fort Myers this past season.
In between those championship seasons, Kepler spent 2013 split between rehabbing an elbow injury during the first half of the season and spending the second half of the year with the Cedar Rapids Kernels.
He had some good moments with Cedar Rapids, including an opposite field home run in his first home game as a Kernel, that stands out in Kepler’s memory (“I remember that short porch really helped me out that first game”), but his thoughts on that season are admittedly mixed.
“The fans are unbelievable (in Cedar Rapids),” Kepler said. But at the same time, recalling his efforts to overcome the injury, he added, “It was rough, but I’m glad I got to stick with that good group of guys and I hope we can move up together because we’ve got chemistry on that team.”
That “good group of guys” that Kepler played with in Cedar Rapids formed the core of this year’s Florida State League championship team. That team was managed by Doug Mientkiewicz, the former Twins first baseman who has been prominently mentioned as a finalist for the Twins’ managerial job this fall.
The speculation has been that, should Mientkiewicz not get the Twins job, he may move up to manage the Class AA team that will be playing their first season in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
“That would be awesome,” said Kepler, of the possibility of playing a second year for Mientkiewicz.
Kepler also provided some insight in to what it’s like to play for Mientkiewicz.
“He’s wild,” Kepler said, while laughing. “I’d say he’s a little unorthodox, but it sure worked for us. We kind of went through a lot of ups and downs this year, but when we won, we won a bunch. And then when we lost one game, Doug would get on us, and I mean hard. But when he did, he fixed it and it worked for us. But, yeah, he sure was tough on us when we weren’t doing well and weren’t focused, but the rest of the year, he was a fun guy to be around. He was just like one of us. Yeah, I loved him.”
Once the AFL season wraps up, Kepler will take a little time off then begin getting ready for 2015.
“The offseasons are getting shorter and shorter,” he said. “But I’ll do as much as I can with my three months of workout.
“I’ll travel the states for a little, go to Texas for Thanksgiving,” Kepler said of his immediate plans after AFL finishes. “I’ll be going home (to Germany) for Christmas and the holidays.”
While Kepler has been playing several days each week in Arizona, pitcher Taylor Rogers has been not much more than a spectator during the games.
Rogers, a 23-year-old lefty who pitched at Class AA New Britain in 2014, was injured in the third inning of his first AFL game when a batted ball was lined off his shoulder.
Since then, he’s been sitting.
Taylor said Wednesday that he’s hoping that’s about to change.
Rogers said that he is, “finally getting back to square one almost – back to where I can toss a little bit. Hopefully I can get a few more innings in here before the season ends.
“It’s something I want to do. You sign the contract to play here so I want to finish this thing out and see what I can do. We’ll probably going to see how these bullpens go.”
Rogers, along with Kepler, Byron Buxton and Jake Reed, is a Cedar Rapids Kernels alum.
Though, unlike the others, Rogers’ time in Cedar Rapids barely was long enough to register on his minor league stats line. He struggled a bit during his three games for the Kernels in a very cold April of 2013 before being promoted to Fort Myers, where he had a very good season for the Miracle.
“Yeah, you know what, funny what warm weather can do for you,” Rogers said, with a smile, then added, “No, it was fun those 14 days or so. It was nice to get out of the cold, but I’m sure if I would have stayed in Cedar Rapids, it would have been a fun year.”
The weather in Cedar Rapids may have been chilly, but Rogers recalls the warm greeting he and his team mates got upon arrival.
“I thought it was really cool how that was the first year of the Twins being there (as an affiliate). What I remember was the fans really welcoming us. That was just really nice to see. Something like that you don’t see very often. They were excited to have us there and we felt very welcomed.”