February 24, 2009

Is Kubel on his way to stardom?

As Twins fans are aware of, ever since the emergence of Denard Span last Spring, the Twins have had a dilemma in regards to their outfield. Unlike many other dilemma's which generally have negatives, this actually has no negatives in regards to the Twins, but in regards to the players, it does.

The Twins currently have five outfielders who should play everyday, but only four places to play them, including the Designated Hitter spot. All need to get a fair number of at bats, but there's one who should get more than anyone. Three years after missing an entire season due to a severe knee injury, Jason Kubel started to show people why he was such a highly regarded player coming up through the minor leagues. His hitting line was nothing spectacular, but Kubel made great strides at the plate and had his best season in a Twins uniform. Coming off of his best season and a new contract extension, Kubel's expectations are quite high this season but he should get the majority of the DH at bats to be able to continue proving himself. Hopefully a much more relaxed Kubel, is an even better Kubel:
"This is the first year I didn't have any pressure to get [a contract] done... I still think I can hit .300 with 25 homers and 80-85 RBI."
Hopefully he's right! His minor league career hitting line of .320/.385/.499 with good power and run production at every level would support such a prediction from Kubel. After signing a two-year $7.2 million contract, many will expect an improvement in Kubel this season. Maybe not to the extent of his predictions of himself, but at least in that direction. A more realistic prediction would be Bill James' projections for Kubel.
.282/.348/.489, 22 HR, 89 RBI
James feels nearly as optimistic as Kubel and certainly believes he'll make strides this season. Unlike other projections such as the Chone Projections, Oliver Projections or Marcel Projections who all have Kubel's overall numbers declining from last season, James feels like many Twins fans who believe Kubel will improve.

This winter has definitely been Kubel's best. Not only is he coming off of his best season and a new contract, but he has also received a bode of confidence from his manager:
"He's my DH. He knows that," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "I know he likes to hit. He likes to swing."
Luckily for the Twins, Kubel despite his 94 strikeouts last season, which ranked fourth on the team, he doesn't take terrible swings. Kubel's biggest flaw are like many other hitters. He has challenges hitting low, away breaking balls as well as high, inside fastballs. Kubel only chases about 22.6% of swings outside of the zone which is a considerably good number opposed to Delmon Young or Carlos Gomez who both are at nearly 40%. For the sake of argument, Joe Mauer sits at 18.4% while Morneau sits at 30.3%.

After the conclusion of last season, Kubel's improvements at the plate even lead Nick Nelson to wonder if he could be the next David Ortiz. Ortiz was another highly coveted player throughout the minor leagues but was confined to DH as well. After reaching the majors, Ortiz took too much time to get adjusted at the plate and the Twins grew impatient. After he was cut loose by the Twins, he exploded in Boston as one of the best hitters in all of baseball. Kubel's major league numbers would make one laugh at the thought, but like Ortiz, he had the numbers to back it up in the minors. It's not uncommon for a player to never be able to replicate the numbers they did in the minors, it's actually very common, but Kubel is showing the same progress that Ortiz is and although it's overly optimistic to believe he'll ever be our "Big Papi", Kubel and Ortiz do have many similarities.

As Kubel continues to prove that his legs are still getting stronger and stronger, he should continue to hit well and should get better with age. Unfortunately he'll never be a great fielder but with above average fielders throughout the system at the same position, that shouldn't bother the Twins very much. Kubel will likely see only a fraction of games against left-handed starters, which will take away some at bats, but I think that Twins fans have not yet seen all of what Kubel has to offer and I think that he'll really open quite a few eyes before the end of his career.

In the mean time, like fellow outfielder Michael Cuddyer showed us in 2006, now that Kubel's place on the team is more set this year than in the past, I believe that he should only get better at the plate. Something else that is nice for Kubel at this point. Unlike the other outfielders in competition for playing time, Kubel's defense (which is the worst of the group) will be payed very little attention to while he'll have to do most of his talking with his bat, this Spring. Gomez, Span, Cuddyer and Young will all have to showcase their defense nearly as much as their bat.

My current outfield prediction is that Young will be on the bench most of the time and will split time with Cuddyer in right field as well as Span in left. I also expect him to get quite a few of the AB's at DH against left-handed starters.

Regardless of what happens with the rest of the outfield, Kubel is my "Pick to Click" this season. Is he the bat that the Twins were looking for to help Mauer & Morneau? I think so... Even though he's not a right-handed hitter, the Twins desperately need another good all-around hitter and I think Kubel is our best bet to show us that he is that player.