'I mean business': Culpepper brings relentless work ethic to Twins

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The ground balls would keep coming off his coach’s bat. A thwack of the bat and a smack in the glove.

Thwack. Smack. Thwack. Smack. Thwack. Smack. Over and over and over, until the coach’s hands would blister and bleed or until the stadium worker looking to call it a night would shut off the lights.

This was the extra work that became a ritual for when he was a freshman in high school, and this was how he molded himself into one of the top-ranked amateur shortstops in the country before the Twins chose him with the 21st overall pick in the 2024 MLB Draft on Sunday.

“When you look at me out on the field, you can tell that I work out until I’m just a specimen on the field,” he said. “I mean business.”

Business looks good for Culpepper, a 21-year-old Memphis, Tenn., native, after he posted a .314/.402/.531 slash with 26 homers and 27 steals in 152 games in three seasons at Kansas State.

Ranked 31st on MLB Pipeline’s Draft Prospects list, Culpepper was described as a “physical freak” by Baseball America. He lives and breathes baseball and has so much raw athleticism and enthusiasm that he’s the kind of player a team can dream of having in a prominent spot in the lineup and in the infield.

“I have drive and passion for the game,” he said. “My dad has done a great job implementing that in my brain, and I’ve just stuck with it.”

Culpepper’s dad, Kenneth, was no baseball player himself. He was a football player in high school. But he turned Kaelen and his brother, Tyler, on to baseball at young ages, and Kaelen credits his father as his biggest advocate, biggest critic and biggest motivator.

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It takes motivation to commit to the craft as seriously as Kaelen did in his freshman year at St. Benedict at Auburndale High School in Cordova, Tenn. Those extra hours he’d log with the school’s hitting coach, Ryan Knott, helped him become a member of the state’s all-tournament team in each of his four years of high school.

But it’s at K-State where Culpepper emerged as a legitimate pro prospect. He has been a three-year starter and made a successful transition to third base early in his collegiate career, only to make another successful transition back to his native short his junior year.

“I was able to move back to my home,” he said, “and what I'm most comfortable with.”

Scouts are mixed on where Culpepper will ultimately land -- third or short. He might not have the traditional power profile at third, but he could be a Gold Glove-caliber defender at the hot corner. It remains to be seen if he has the quickness to stick at short, but he could not be clearer on what he envisions for himself.

“One hundred percent,” he said. “Shortstop.”

That’s a window into this kid’s conviction. Culpepper has a genuine presence about him. He likes being in control, being an active leader on the field and being a vocal leader off it.

“My knowledge for the game just always seems to increase and improve,” he said. “That’s what I love about myself. I’m always open to learning more about who I am as a player and what I need to do to get better.”

The baseball world learned more about Culpepper as a player when he posted an .896 OPS for Bluefield in the Appalachian League (the collegiate summer league that is part of MLB’s Prospect Development Pipeline) as a 19-year-old in the summer of 2022 and when he suited up for USA Baseball’s collegiate national team last summer. Team USA was a stacked squad that featured four of MLB Pipeline’s eventual top 10 Draft prospects: Charlie Condon (who was drafted No. 3 overall by the Rockies on Sunday), Jac Caglianone (No. 6, Royals), Braden Montgomery (No. 12, Red Sox) and JJ Wetherholt (No. 7, Cardinals). But it was Culpepper who led the team in all three slash stats -- batting average (.471), on-base percentage (.526) and slugging (.853).

“It was a great feeling,” Culpepper said. “Number one, it's Team USA. I felt like I was still underrated. So I definitely wanted to put myself on the map, and I was playing with a chip on the shoulder. And I think getting invited and making the team definitely helped in that case. It was just a wild experience and playing with those guys and playing in that atmosphere really brought out the best out of me.”

So did all that extra work back in the day. It got Culpepper to the Twins. And it has him excited for what comes next.