FORT MYERS, FLA. – Max Kepler isn’t sure yet whether he would enjoy being the Twins’ leadoff hitter. Days like Sunday might help him make up his mind.
Kepler, making his first start atop his team’s lineup since he was in rookie ball in 2012, smacked home runs in his first two at-bats of the spring, then drew a walk when the Red Sox pitched around him. His spring on-base percentage of 1.000 strikes Rocco Baldelli as a pretty good qualification for an offense igniter.
“It could be something that works out really well for him and all of us. It’s a spot where you’ve seen some guys really enjoy it, really get out there. It allows guys to free up, relax and do their thing.”
Kepler’s thing is showing power against both left- and right-handers, as he proved on Sunday. He whistled a pitch from Red Sox righthander Ryan Weber down the right field line, just inside the foul pole. An inning later, Kepler bashed lefthander Dedgar Jimenez’s pitch into the Boston bullpen in right-center.
Kepler said his big day was a result of a new approach this spring: Be more aggressive. “I don’t want to just look at too many pitches that are hittable,” Kepler said. “It’s frustrating, you know, when you get a good pitch and let it go, and if you don’t get anymore it’s a tough at-bat. So I don’t want to miss those anymore.”
Baldelli told Kepler at TwinsFest that he would hit high in the order during spring training, but the outfielder doesn’t know if it might carry over into the regular season. He also doesn’t know if he wants it to. “It was fun today because I hit the ball well. But I kind of have to figure out the approach of a leadoff hitter,” Kepler said. “Then again, I don’t want to change too much about my game. So I’m not sure yet.”
Not much change would be required, Baldelli said, which is why he mentioned Kepler and shortstop Jorge Polanco as his top choices for the job right now.
“It’s a great spot for him,” Baldelli said. “He has a really nice approach. He deciphers pitches and makes good decisions. It’s potentially a very good for him and the way he fits in with everybody else. I’m excited about it and he seems to be as well.”
Gonzalez to sign Monday
Marwin Gonzalez will sign his $21 million free-agent contract on Monday. Then Baldelli will begin the process of figuring out how to use him.
“We’re going to end up relying on him in a lot of ways. The fact that he can do so many things, it truly gives us options,” Baldelli said of the former Astro, who has extensive major league experience at all four infield positions and the outfield. “When setting lineups, in-game moves, he lets you do almost anything you might want to do. And that’s really helpful.”
Baldelli said he plans to use Gonzalez on a daily basis, sort of a 10th regular who can give almost anyone a day off. “The way I’ve always thought of players, and there are not that many of them, but the few guys that can do what Marwin does, they are not utility players. Marwin is a multi-positional everyday player,” the manager said. “What guys like him and Ben Zobrist do is really not easy. You have to have the ability to bounce around the field and do different things and have a diverse skillset.”
First order of business, Baldelli said, is learning Gonzalez’s practice routines.
“You can’t prepare for every position every day. So you learn how to do that over time,” he said. “But the fact that you’re not preparing [the same way] the guy next to you might be preparing to do the same job, and yet you can still go out there and do it as well as the next guy, it’s pretty sweet when you can see guys who can pull that off. Marwin has proven he’s one of those rare guys.”
Jose Berrios makes his spring debut, and Willians Astudillo is scheduled to play third base as the Orioles visit Hammond Stadium on Monday.