Max Kepler has been surprised every step of the way.
He was surprised when professional baseball scouts began paying attention to him when he was 14 years old and living in Germany. And he was very surprised last summer when the Minnesota Twins signed him as a European free agent when he was 16 years old and gave him an $800,000 bonus.
Imagine that. He’s 16, he’s got 800K, and he’ll play pro ball this spring in the United States.
“Yeah, it’s kind of hard to believe,” he told Perfect Game USA.
Kepler is a German citizen, so he was free to sign as a free agent and not required to go through the Major League Draft. The $800,000 signing bonus is the largest ever paid for a European position player, and now he’ll try to become the first German amateur to reach the big leagues.
Kepler will turn 17 on Feb. 10, but he’ll still be considerably younger than the other players in the Gulf Coast League this season. He’s ready to give it a shot, and it’s not just for the money.
“I’m not really paying attention to the financial part,” he said. “I’m concentrating on the baseball part.”
Kepler’s story is unusual in many respects. He grew up in Germany and speaks three languages fluently – German, Polish and English. His parents, Kathy Kepler and Marek Rozycki, met in Berlin as ballet dancers, which helps explain some of Max’s athletic ability.
“Yeah, I get that question a lot,” he said. “My parents definitely had a lot to do with my athletic career.”
His mother, born in America, taught Max about footwork. His father, from Poland, helped Max with proper stretching techniques. The result is a 6-foot-3, 192-pound left-handed outfielder who has good speed, a nice swing, good hand-eye coordination and raw power.
Kepler said baseball is not very big in Berlin, where he grew up, but people noticed his natural ability. Andy Johnson, a Twins scout who’s based in Norway, saw Kepler play in a tournament and was impressed. Make that very impressed.
“I was 14 at the time when my dad told me he (Johnson) had approached him,” Kepler said. “I was kind of surprised.”
When Kepler was 15 his parents enrolled him at a special boarding school in Bavaria that had a strong baseball program. And when he was 16, he traveled to Florida with a German team to scrimmage against minor leaguers in the Boston Red Sox system. Shortly after that, he signed with the Twins.
Kepler attended the Instructional League with the Twins this past fall and enrolled at South Fort Myers High School in Florida, across the street from the Twins’ training facility in Fort Myers. He was a part-time student at South Fort Myers High during the fall, taking classes and training with the Twins, and already has his degree.
“I got my GED high school diploma, so I’m done with school,” he reported.
Kepler plans to enroll in a junior college soon, just for a class or two, to get started on a college degree, because he knows education is important, too. He’s working out on a regular basis at the Twins facility, getting ready for his first season in pro ball. “Every day around 9 a.m., except Sunday,” he said.
Kepler is living with his mother in Fort Myers, but she plans to return to Germany after the Gulf Coast League season begins. Then he’ll be on his own, a pro baseball player at 17.
Surprised? You bet he is.