Earlier this week a post went up on ESPN's Sweetspot Blog about the importance of one player to the future of baseball in Europe
. Mariners infielder Alex Liddi has only played 53 games in the major leagues but he is the first player born and raised in Italy. He has hit .224/.278/.397 during that stretch which aren't exactly eye-popping numbers. Still the article said, "If baseball is going to grow in Europe, it's going to be because of people like him."
There are other important players with European heritage. Heck, the Twins already have one Hall of Fame player, Bert Blyleven, that was born across the pond. He spent most of his youth in California so it wasn't exactly like he grew up over seas.
Major League Baseball wants the World Baseball Classic to help spread the game of baseball to an international market. Europe has been dominated by soccer for decades and it has been hard for baseball to gain a footing. If baseball is going to take off in Europe, there needs to be more European-born players making an impact at the top level of the game.
One country not represented in this year's WBC is Germany. Following World War II, youth in Germany started playing baseball because of America's servicemen stationed in Europe. The game has gone through its ups and downs in that country but there could be room for growth in the coming years.
There have been a handful of players with German backgrounds to play in the major leagues. Since 1972, thirteen players born in German have made their major league debut. Most of these players were children of American service members stationed in the country. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire is one of those players and he became the first German born manager since 1897
The Twins also have a player in their minor league system that could be very important to the growth of baseball in Europe. Max Kepler was considered one of the best prospects to every come out of Europe when the Twins signed him as a 16-year-old. The German-born Kepler is the son of ballet dancers and this athletic heritage helps him on the field.
During his first couple of years in the minor leagues, it looked like Kepler was still trying to figure things out. He only hit one home run to go along with 21 other extra-base hits. But there were positive signs and some hope for more power to emerge in the future. For instance, his on-base percentage was over .345 and he hit .272 over 331 at-bats.
After spending all of 2011 with the Elizabethton, the Twins sent Kepler back to the rookie leagues to get some more seasoning. This turned out to be a great decision as he put together his best year as a professional, hitting .297/.387/.539 with 10 home runs and 16 doubles over 59 games. These were all career high marks for the teenager.
His breakout performance has helped him to move up the ladder of Twins prospects. Minnesota's farm system is considered by many to be one of the best in the game. Here is where he ranks on a variety of top 10 lists for the Twins:
There is no way that baseball will ever compete with soccer in Europe but it can solidify itself as a solid alternative in some countries. For baseball to gain a following in Europe, there needs to be stars to follow in the big leagues. It might not take a superstar but the youth of Europe could look up to a solid MLB player.
Will Kepler be a star for Europeans to follow? He is still a few years away from the big leagues but he might have the skills to take Europe by storm.
…he has to be better than Alex Liddi, right?