January 25, 2009

Extending Kubel

When reports surfaced last week that the Twins were on the verge of inking Jason Kubel to a two-year contract that would cover his remaining seasons of arbitration eligibility, my take was: "If they're smart, the Twins will at least attempt to get a team option for 2011 included in the deal." Apparently the Twins are smart, because they did exactly that, reportedly signing Kubel to a two-year contract that includes a team option for 2011.

Kubel was already under the team's control for two more years thanks to the arbitration process, so the Twins essentially reached a settlement with him for this season, pre-paid for 2010, and bought out his first season of free agency. The team option for 2011 is crucial because it delays Kubel hitting the open market without forcing the Twins to commit to a truly long-term contract. Instead he's locked in through the age of 29 and the Twins can decide later if his thirties are worth investing in.

Kubel took much longer than expected to establish himself as a valuable major leaguer because of the career-threatening knee injuries that he suffered while playing in the Arizona Fall League following his debut season. He missed all of 2005 and was clearly at less than full strength while struggling mightily in 2006, but has turned in back-to-back productive campaigns while emerging as the Twins' third-best hitter behind Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau.


Justin Morneau .286 .359 .495 .854
Joe Mauer .313 .400 .441 .841
Torii Hunter .287 .334 .505 .839
Jason Kubel .272 .335 .461 .796
Michael Cuddyer .268 .348 .413 .761

For too long Ron Gardenhire was reluctant to stick Kubel in the lineup and let him be, which included starting Craig Monroe over him against a right-hander on Opening Day last year. That finally changed around midseason, and down the stretch Kubel was a lineup fixture against righties and got regular playing time against lefties too. Kubel still hasn't had 500 at-bats in a season and the outfield logjam means that he may not be a true everyday player in 2009, but he's safely in the Twins' plans. Finally.

Kubel has developed into a much-needed source of power, smacking 20 long balls in just 463 at-bats last season to rank second on the team behind only the 23 homers that Morneau totaled in 160 more at-bats. For his career Kubel has gone deep 22 times per 600 at-bats and looks capable of reaching 30 homers if given everyday work, but his batting averages have been lower than expected based on his minor-league track record.

Prior to the knee injuries Kubel rarely struck out and hit .323 in the minors, including .312 at rookie-ball, .310 at Single-A, .377 at Double-A, and .343 at Triple-A. Back in 2004 he looked more likely to hit for big batting averages than big power, and even swiped 17 bases that year. Blowing out his knee changed all of that, as Kubel came back with far less speed and athleticism while seemingly struggling at times to find balance at the plate. He's also added quite a bit of weight, some of which is no doubt muscle.

Prior to the injury Kubel was a good athlete and high-contact, high-average hitter with developing power and solid plate discipline. Some bad luck cost him a chance to see where that path would have taken him, but to Kubel's credit he battled back and shifted his skill set to become a different type of valuable player. He's unlikely to bat .300, stole zero bases last year, and is best suited for designated hitter on defense, but Kubel has hit .272/.335/.461 over the past two years and is entering his age-27 season.

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