October 28, 2004

Damaged Goods

I tried to put off writing about Jason Kubel's knee injury for a while, perhaps subconsciously hoping it would go away like a bad dream. Sadly, it didn't, so I might as well admit it exists and talk about it. Basically, injuries suck, and every fan of every team could explain in their own unique way why that is true. In my case, and in the Twins' case, Joe Mauer's rookie season was limited to just 35 games and his long-term ability to remain at catcher is in serious question, all because of a knee injury he suffered in the second game of his career. It's very possible that a Hall of Fame catching career will be over before it ever really got started.

Now, just weeks after the Twins' season came to an end, Kubel suffered the same fate, wrecking his knee in a collision during an Arizona Fall League game. In fact, all indications are that Kubel's knee is in far worse shape than Mauer's ever was, as he not only tore his ACL, but also damaged his meniscus. I honestly have no idea what that means exactly, but I know enough to realize it's not good. Kubel is now on a very long road to recovery, one that may not even lead him back to being the player he was before the injury. And that, way more than what it means to the Twins next year, is the sad part. Because just like with Mauer, an injury may keep us from ever seeing what Kubel was fully capable of.

While Kubel recovers, the Twins have some interesting decisions on their hands. Before the injury, it was widely assumed that Kubel would take over right-field duties from Jacque Jones next year, allowing the Twins to cut Jones and his sizeable contract loose and replace them with Kubel and his minimum salary. That's no longer an option, but I don't think this will lead to Jones returning in 2005. Quite simply, the Twins just don't have the payroll room to make that work. Terry Ryan has said that the 2005 payroll will be about the same as as this year's, which means he has roughly $55 million to work with. There's just no way the Twins can fit Jones into those plans without making some major changes somewhere else.

If Kubel is out and Jones is gone, who plays right field? The easy answer is Lew Ford, who was the Twins' best position player this year. Once Shannon Stewart returned to the lineup, Ford was often relegated to DH'ing, but he's quite capable of playing right field on an everyday basis. What putting Ford in right field would do is fill the void left by Kubel and Jones while simultaneously opening up the DH spot, and it's here that the Twins' surplus of capable bats comes into play.

Matthew LeCroy could once again begin the year as the starting DH. Michael Restovich could finally get his shot after a couple dozen years at Triple-A. They could decide to play Michael Cuddyer there, rather than make me happy by putting him at second base. There are other options too. They could bring back Jose Offerman or someone similar. They could use this opportunity to give Mauer occasional breaks from the rigors of catching. They could give Terry Tiffee a shot and see if his minor-league numbers from this year are for real.

And I'm sure there are plenty of other scenarios that would work too, and all of them far better than bringing Jones and his .315 on-base percentage back to pay him 10% of the team's total payroll. The fact is that the Twins' seemingly neverending depth at 1B/DH/LF/RF has once again come into play, leaving them with a very fillable hole at DH, rather than a more difficult hole in right field. When you slide a player the caliber of Ford into a spot in the lineup because of an injury, you know you've got some serious organizational depth.

Even if Kubel is out for the entire 2005 season -- which, from what I've heard, is likely -- having to play LeCroy or Restovich or someone similar in his place is not the end of the world. What's more concerning is Kubel's long-term health and the impact this injury may have on his development as a player. Not only might he be forced to miss an entire year of development at the age of 23, he's missing out on his chance to claim an everyday job in the major leagues, he may be slower, weaker and less agile when does return, and he's now got that cloud of injury hanging over him for the rest of his career.

In Justin Morneau, Mauer and Kubel, the Twins had an extraordinarily promising and talented trio of hitters capable of anchoring the next era of the franchise. They all had excellent minor-league careers, made it to the majors at very young ages, and experienced success this season. At 23, Morneau hit .271/.340/.536 in 74 games. At 21, Mauer hit .308/.369/.570 in 35 games. At 22, Kubel hit .300/.358/.433 in 23 games.

Except now Mauer is a catcher with a bum wheel and no matter how many specialists he sees, second-opinions he gets, and times we read that he's on the comeback trail, the fact is that he's damaged goods at 21. He might still hit, but two of his biggest assets -- his ability to hit well while playing catcher and his ability to play catcher very well -- could potentially be all but gone.

And Kubel's in the same boat. While his defensive position doesn't require as much of him and his surgecically-repaired knee as Mauer's, if he misses the 2005 season and comes back as a shell of himself in 2006, he'll have wasted two years in his early 20s and lost that new-prospect shine. Only Morneau remains untouched by injury, and if I were the Twins, I'd think about locking him away in a hermetically-sealed room somewhere until March, and perhaps even between games.

Today at The Hardball Times:

- The Curse of Big Papi (by Aaron Gleeman)

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