August 25, 2004

Who is Jason Kubel?

Mothers are the greatest.

My mom knows that I am completely obsessed with baseball, to the point that I spend about 98% of my free time watching it, playing it, reading about it and writing about it. And she is actually a pretty big sports fan herself, watching a few innings of Twins games a couple times a week and being quite obsessed with the Timberwolves.

Yet yesterday, she came home from work and asked me the following: "Have you ever heard of this Jason Kubel guy for the Twins? He's supposed to be the next hot prospect."

It's an innocent enough question, I suppose, and I don't want to be too harsh on her because she's still got about two weeks to deal with me before I go back to school. However, the chances of someone running a baseball blog devoted almost entirely to the Minnesota Twins, writing a weekly column on prospects for another website, and being the man in charge of a third baseball website not knowing about Jason Kubel is about the same as the chances of me being asked to introduce Johan Santana at his Hall of Fame induction.

I don't really have a point to all this, other than to say that the nice thing about being an incredibly obsessed baseball fan is that when most people finally hear that the Twins have a really good prospect named Jason Kubel, you've already known about him for years. Plus, this gives me a chance to talk a little about Kubel, who is in the middle of a spectacular season.

Here's what Kubel, the Twins' 12th-round pick back in 2000, has done so far this year between Double-A New Britain and Triple-A Rochester ...

121 469 .360 .415 .601 46 21 49 54 15

Well, my mom was right about one thing ... Kubel is definitely the Twins' hot prospect.

The Twins have a unique ability to churn out homegrown hitters who play the positions on the low end of the defensive spectrum and there's little in those numbers not to like. His walk rate isn't great, although a guy hitting .377 at Double-A and .353 at Triple-A may not be all that interested in drawing walks.

Everything else is simply outstanding. Not only is Kubel hitting .360, he has 21 homers and 42 doubles (and four triples) in 469 at-bats, which works out to an outstanding .241 Isolated Power (slugging percentage minus batting average). He's taken advantage of being on base 41.5% of the time by stealing 15 bases at a 79% clip, and he's done a great job controlling the strike zone, with just 54 strikeouts.

Here's a look at what Kubel has done in the past ...

YEAR     LV       G      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG     D+T     HR     BB     SO

2000 R 23 78 .282 .367 .372 5 0 10 9
2001 R 37 124 .331 .422 .500 14 1 19 14
2002 A 115 424 .321 .380 .521 30 17 41 48
2003 A 116 420 .298 .361 .400 24 5 48 54

I like what I see there an awful lot. To me, when a young hitter (Kubel doesn't turn 23 until May) who has consistently posted big batting averages at every level starts adding significant power while maintaining the high batting average in the high minors, it gets me thinking about a superstar.

Kubel has played primarily right field this season and I expect that to be where he plays for the Twins next year. I've long thought that Jacque Jones is quite expendable as a player, and that will be the case more than ever this offseason, as his salary will rise again.

Rather than pay a bunch of money to Jones, a guy who can't hit lefties, refuses to show any discipline at the plate, and has rarely been anything more than an average corner outfielder offensively, I think it would definitely be in the Twins' best interest to give the job to Kubel, save the millions for something else, and see if they have another young stud on their hands.

The only real "problem" with Kubel is that he's a left-handed hitter. Now, normally this wouldn't be a problem at all, but the Twins' other two young studs, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, are also left-handed. Usually, if you had three guys with the offensive potential of the Twins' threesome, you'd end up batting them back-to-back-to-back in the lineup, either 2-3-4 or 3-4-5.

That's still an option, obviously, but batting three straight lefties in the middle of the order is not optimal. I can almost see the parade of LOOGYs (Lefty One Out GuYs) now, and Kubel hasn't even played in the majors yet. If the Twins follow my advice and jettison Jones in favor of Kubel, and decide not to make me insane by keeping and vastly overpaying Cristian Guzman and Luis Rivas next year, I could see them trotting something like this out on a regular basis ...

1) Shannon Stewart - R

2) Lew Ford - R

3) Joe Mauer - L

4) Justin Morneau - L

5) Torii Hunter - R

6) Corey Koskie - L

7) Michael Cuddyer - R

8) Jason Kubel - L

9) Jason Bartlett - R

That's not quite optimal lineup construction either, thanks to the lefty/righty issue (Koskie's a lefty too), but it's close enough. That group is young, deep, and extremely exciting to think about (assuming, of course, that Mauer can catch). Now, odds are that the Twins won't enter next season with those nine, but that's what I would try to do if I were running things.

If Jason Bartlett can't cut it (he's hitting .319/.399/.472 at Triple-A this year), Nick Punto or a veteran free agent signing would be an option, and considering shortstop would almost certainly be the worst hitter in the lineup no matter who it is, they could afford the weak bat. Regardless of whether it is Bartlett or Punto or a cheap free agent, that lineup would include six players making essentially the league minimum, which is always an important factor for the Twins.

You know, I was thinking that if, for some miraculous reason, the Twins actually did enter the 2005 season with that group as their everyday lineup, I'd suddenly have very little to complain about. That might be an interesting experience.

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August 23, 2004

Good Day

Called up the homies and I'm askin' y'all

Which court are y'all playin' basketball?

Get me on the court and I'm trouble

Last week f---ed around and got a triple double

Freaking brothers every way like M.J.

I can't believe, today was a good day

--- Ice Cube, It Was a Good Day

As a baseball fan (or at least this baseball fan), it just doesn't get much better than yesterday.

The Twins, behind yet another dominant Johan Santana start, beat the Rangers for their fourth straight win. In the process, they put another game between themselves and the rest of the American League Central, because both the White Sox and Indians lost. In addition to all that, my second-favorite team, the Oakland A's, beat the Orioles and gained a full game on the Rangers, who lost to the Twins.

Taking it even further ... my main man Mike Cameron homered, I got to see Scott Kazmir make his major league debut (and get his first major league win), and Jason Bay, who I recently acquired in my Diamond-Mind keeper league, went 2-for-4 with a walk.

Hell, even Luis Rivas had two hits and an RBI!

To help me celebrate, please read this ...

The Hardball Times: The Machine

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August 22, 2004

What a Difference a Week Makes

The American League Central race is really unpredictable.

How unpredictable is it, Aaron?

So unpredictable, in fact, that it makes me look stupid on a weekly basis (although some might say that's not a particularly noteworthy accomplishment).

Okay, so that wasn't much of a punchline, but consider that two weeks ago, with the Twins up six games on the second-place Chicago White Sox, I wrote:

The Minnesota Twins, thanks to a 14-5 record since the All-Star break and Chicago's 8-12 record during the same span, are getting very close to running away and hiding from the rest of the American League Central. Now, those of you who have experienced my incredible pessimism in regard to the Twins over the last two years know that I'm the last person in the world to say something like that, but I think it's true.

Then, last Monday, with the Twins clinging to a two-game lead over not the Chicago White Sox, but the Cleveland Indians, I wrote about the disorder in the American League Central house:

I was too busy being giddy about what looked like a third straight division title win over the White Sox to even think about the Indians. I mean, the Twins had been fighting back and forth with Chicago all year, just like they did in 2002 and 2003, and they had surged ahead at a key moment, seemingly putting the White Sox out of reach, just like they did in 2002 and 2003.

Then suddenly the Indians were right there -- two games back. And if not for a surprisingly excellent start by Terry Mulholland and a three-hit game from Corey Koskie yesterday, the division would be all tied up. To say the Indians snuck up on me would be an understatement. They didn't even really sneak, they were just sort of there. Like a car that pulls up next to you at a red light without ever being in your rear-view mirror. And now they're revving their engine, waiting for the light to turn green.

Now here we are, just a week later, and order has been restored. With their lead sitting at a slim two games last Monday, the Twins took two out of three from the New York Yankees while Cleveland dropped three straight to the Texas Rangers. Then, this weekend, the Twins flexed their muscles by sweeping Cleveland in a three-game series at the Metrodome, outscoring the Indians 20-5.

Two weeks ago, they were fighting the White Sox and pulling away from the AL Central pack. Last week, they were fighting the Indians and their lead was shrinking on a daily basis. This week, all is well in Minnesota and the Twins have the biggest lead atop the AL Central that they've had all year.

AL CENTRAL      W      L     WIN%      GB

Minnesota 69 54 .561 ---
Cleveland 63 62 .504 7.0
Chicago 60 61 .496 8.0

I was thinking about what I could say this week that might look dumb seven days from now, like what I said two weeks ago about the Twins putting the rest of the division out of sight and what I said last week about the Indians getting ready to blow past the Twins when the light turned green. I've decided that the only option is to proclaim the AL Central race over and declare the Twins division champs for the a third straight year. So that's what I'm doing.

The Twins are just about done with what is by far the toughest part of their schedule for the entire year, having played 22 out of 25 games against above-.500 teams, including six games against the Indians, four against the A's, and three each against the White Sox, Red Sox, Yankees and Angels. They have another 10 games left in the brutal 35-game stretch, going to Texas for four games starting tonight, heading to Anaheim for three, and then finishing up with another three games against the Rangers, in Minnesota. If Minnesota can make it through that without a disaster taking place, they then enter one of the easiest portions of their schedule, playing a 10-game stretch against Kansas City, Baltimore and Detroit.

Assuming the Twins can manage to play .500 baseball over their final 39 games (they have won 56.1% of their games thus far), they would finish the season with 88 wins. For the Indians to catch them, Cleveland would have to go 25-12 over their final 37 games. For the White Sox (yes, they're still alive) to catch them, Chicago would have to go 28-13 over their final 41 games. In other words, this thing is totally in Minnesota's hands and, barring a major collapse, they'll be taking home the division title for the third straight year.

The funny thing about all of this is that, if you'd have told me two weeks ago that the Twins would be up seven games in the division on August 23 and cruising to another division title, I'd have had no problem believing you and I wouldn't have thought twice about it. Meanwhile, if you'd have told me the exact same thing last week, I probably would have called you a liar, among other things.

Aside from the Twins re-taking the dominant position in the division, some other interesting things happened in the AL Central during the past week ...

  • Corey Koskie resurrected his entire season. Prior to last week, Koskie had been getting an awful lot of heat from Twins fans for his disappointing year offensively, but as I explained a little while back, even Koskie struggling is far better and more valuable than Cristian Guzman, who has received all sorts of undeserved praise lately.

    After the Twins dropped the second game of the first Cleveland series on August 14, Koskie was hitting .234/.335/.440 on the year. Those are certainly not bad numbers for a third baseman, particularly one who plays great defense, but they were quite a long way from the .278/.374/.464 he hit from 2001-2003.

    Since then, Koskie has been on fire. He went 3-for-5 with a homer, a double, two runs scored and two RBIs in the final game of that Cleveland series, helping the Twins avoid a sweep, and then went 6-for-10 with a homer, a double, three runs scored and four RBIs in the three-game series against the Yankees. Koskie continued his hot hitting this weekend by homering in all three games against Cleveland.

    In the course of seven games, Koskie improved his Gross Productive Average for the season by nearly 10%, finishing yesterday's game with a .251/.346/.490 line on the year. Thanks to his homer binge, Koskie is now the team leader in homers and slugging percentage, and has a chance to become the first Twins hitter to smack 30 homers in a season since 1987.

  • The Cleveland offense that had been putting up huge numbers all year was completely shut down, scoring a grand total of 15 runs over their last seven games, all losses. Last week, while raving about the Indians' hitting, I said, "The pitching staff is still not very good, which is part of the reason why I didn't think they'd be a factor this year, but the offense is so good -- leading all of baseball in runs scored, on-base percentage and doubles -- that it doesn't much matter who's on the mound." Of course, it does matter when they're scoring 2-3 runs per game, and the Indians' pitching staff gave up 50 runs in those seven losses.

    And it's not like they were facing great pitching. In those seven losses -- four to Minnesota and three to Texas -- the Indians faced the following starting pitchers ...

    Terry Mulholland (twice)

    Mickey Callaway

    Scott Erickson

    Kenny Rogers

    Kyle Lohse

    Brad Radke

    Those six pitchers have ERAs of 4.50, 7.94, 6.67, 4.55, 5.23 and 3.41 this year, and only Rogers and Radke have winning records.

  • The White Sox continued their freefall from contention, dropping two out of three to Detroit and then getting swept at home by Boston. Chicago is now 14-23 since the All-Star break, including 8-18 since coming to the Metrodome for a big three-game series on July 26.

    While you might have expected the Chicago offense to go flat without Frank Thomas and Magglio Ordonez, it has actually been their pitching staff that has let them down of late. White Sox pitchers have a 5.00 ERA since the All-Star break and the team allowed 47 runs during their latest six-game homestand against Detroit and Boston. If Chicago continues to play like this, they not only have no shot at making things interesting atop the division, they are in serious danger of finishing in fourth place.

    Right now, both Cleveland and Chicago are closer to the fourth-place Tigers than they are to the first-place Twins. The good news for all three teams is that no one is going to "catch" the Royals for the basement position, but here's what the fight to avoid the dreaded "Worst non-Royals team in the division" spot looks like:

    AL CENTRAL      W      L     WIN%      GB
    Cleveland 63 62 .504 ---
    Chicago 60 61 .496 1.0
    Detroit 58 65 .472 4.0

    Obviously part of Detroit closing the gap on Cleveland and Chicago comes from the Indians and White Sox struggling over the last week or so, but the Tigers are playing pretty well too. They are 7-3 over their past 10 games, winning back-to-back series against the White Sox and Mariners.

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August 19, 2004

Almost a Sweep

I learned many important things last night ...

  • The Yankees' offense is very good and they have many scary hitters.
  • It is not so easy to beat the Yankees (or anyone) when Brad Radke and Johan Santana aren't pitching.
  • Carlos Silva is not an option against the Yankees (or anyone) in the playoffs.
  • Gary Sheffield's shoulder injury may do a lot of things, but slowing down his ridiculous bat speed is not one of them. Sheffield's line last night: 3-for-4 with two homers, a double, a walk, three runs scored and five RBIs.
  • In a battle of man vs. wall, the wall always wins. Torii Hunter had some doubts about this prior to last night, so he decided to test it for himself. He lost.

  • Ron Gardenhire still confuses the hell out of me. Through a series of moves and non-moves, two of the most important at-bats of the season came from Rob Bowen and Luis Rivas. Seriously. They resulted in a pop up and a strikeout.
  • Joe Nathan is human. Third time all year he's given up a run and his 29-inning scoreless streak is over. So is any thought of him having the lowest ERA ever for a reliever.
  • Unfortunately, Mariano Rivera is not. Ten pitches. Three strikeouts. Game over.
  • It makes me feel slightly better about my own team getting blown out to turn the channel to the White Sox game and immediately hear Hawk Harrelson come back from a commercial break by saying, simply, "Not good."
  • It makes me feel no better about anything when my team comes back from being blown out, takes the lead, and then watches it slip away.
  • It is better to turn the TV off when your team is getting blown out and risk not seeing them come back to win than to keep the TV on only to watch what happened last night.
  • Being a Red Sox fan must be really, really tough.

Assuming you can put last night's game out of your mind, this is what's on tap for the weekend ...

                W      L     WIN%      GB

Minnesota 66 54 .550 ---
Cleveland 63 59 .516 4.0

Game 1: Jake Westbrook (11-5, 3.51) vs. Kyle Lohse (5-10, 5.42)

Game 2: C.C. Sabathia (9-7, 3.91) vs. Terry Mulholland (3-6, 4.73)

Game 3: Cliff Lee (10-5, 5.10) vs. Brad Radke (8-6, 3.55)

From the looks of those matchups, I'd say Game 3 is the one to win. Either way, the Twins will be in first-place on Monday morning. See ya then ...

New article at The Hardball Times: News, Notes and Quotes (August 20, 2004)

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August 18, 2004

Johan vs. The Yankees

I've written 2,168 words on last night's Twins/Yankees game that you can read simply by clicking on the following link ...

The Hardball Times: Johan vs. The Yankees

+ = ?

I doubt it, but a boy can dream, can't he?

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