September 27, 2005

Waiting for Kubel

Patrick Reusse had a notes column in yesterday's Minneapolis Star Tribune that contained a couple interesting quotes on the Twins. Among them:

"I asked how Kubel looked and one of our coaches told me, 'He's hitting so many over the fence we're running out of baseballs.'"

- Twins farm director Jim Rantz, offering an update on injured outfielder Jason Kubel's batting practice sessions this month in Fort Myers, Fla.

The best-case scenario for Jason Kubel's recovery from multiple knee injuries would have had him playing a few games with the Twins this month. Or at least that was the best-case scenario laid out when he first suffered the injuries last fall. Short of that, however, it sounds as if Kubel is coming along rather nicely. The increasingly frequent updates on his status in the local newspapers are optimistic and encouraging, and now it sounds like he is close to returning to game action.

When a player goes down with a season-ending injury before the season even begins -- or before the offseason even begins, really -- it's pretty easy to just forget about him. But if you remember back to this time last year, Kubel was looking very good in a September callup, earning a spot on the postseason roster, and generally making a case for a big role with the Twins this season. Instead he won't get a single at-bat.

The big question going forward is whether or not he can be at the same place come spring training that he was last fall. In other words, can he put himself in a position to convince the Twins that he's ready to play a big role in 2006? While this offseason will no doubt focus on who Terry Ryan can go out and get to improve the offense, either via free agency or trades, Kubel's status for next season is as important as any move the Twins can make.

If he is healthy and plays like his minor-league numbers (and brief stint with the Twins) suggest he is capable of, it will be like an impact hitter falling into the Twins' laps. He wasn't in their plans at all for 2005, yet he could be one of the team's better hitters in 2006. Of course, as we've seen from Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer, counting on top prospects living up to expectations immediately is often foolish, and doing so with someone who missed an entire season might be bordering on dumb.

My hope is that the Twins can gain enough confidence in Kubel this winter that they are able to let Jacque Jones leave as a free agent. Jones has been wildly inconsistent this season and generally just not all that good, and his complete inability to hit left-handed pitching will continue to handicap the Twins as long as Ron Gardenhire is running things and unwilling to do something as simple as use platoons.

Now, Kubel is a young left-handed hitter and thus should also be expected to struggle against southpaws, much like Morneau and Joe Mauer have this season. However, he'll do so while making the league minimum, compared to Jones' $5 million salary this season, and Gardenhire has actually shown a willingness to occasionally platoon young hitters. Plus, it'll be tough for Kubel to do worse than the .190/.241/.354 Jones has "hit" against lefties this season.

If Kubel is healthy and can step into Jones' spot in the lineup and more or less replace his offense, it will go a long way towards allowing the Twins to improve at the plate. It'll be one less position to worry about and it'll be one less place where money is needed to get better. Can Kubel do that? Well, it was certainly in some doubt even before the injuries, so now it is a big question mark.

Here's what Jones has done over the past two years:

YEAR       G      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
2004 151 .254 .315 .427 .742
2005 137 .248 .320 .440 .761

To me those numbers as highly replaceable and the fact that the Twins have spent about 8% of their payroll to get them is upsetting. Jones has been a below-average corner outfielder offensively in each of the past two seasons, providing a poor batting average, sub par on-base skills, and a mediocre slugging percentage.

Even Morneau and Cuddyer, as disappointing as they've been, have essentially equaled Jones' production this season:

                     AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
Jacque Jones .248 .320 .440 .761
Justin Morneau .238 .305 .436 .741
Michael Cuddyer .257 .324 .421 .745

Even if Kubel disappoints and puts together a season similar to the ones Morneau and Cuddyer have given the Twins this year, he'll still be close to Jones offensively. And if he happens to be one of the rare Twins hitting prospects who immediately lives up to the hype, he could very well become the second-best hitter on the team.

Because, just in case you've completely forgotten about him, here's what Kubel did between Double-A, Triple-A, and the majors last season:

  G     AVG     OBP     SLG    2B    HR    BB    SO    SB    RUN    RBI
150 .347 .410 .573 44 24 59 68 17 106 107

Let's just hope his knee heals as well as Mauer's.

Today at The Hardball Times:
- Measuring Range (by David Gassko)
- Business of Baseball Report (by Brian Borawski)

Today's Picks (108-99, +$665):
Chicago (Contreras) -165 over Detroit (Douglass)

Thursday's Picks:
Chicago (Garcia) -160 over Detroit (Grilli)

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