Adios, Jason Kubel


Less than a week after Michael Cuddyer jumped to the National League, another Twins outfielder has followed suit. Jason Kubel signed a two year, $15 million contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks. This move completes the expected exodus of core players from the Twins. It also gives us an opportunity to reflect on one of the biggest “What If” stories of the last decade, and the irony that Kubel is now trying to revive his career in the state where it was ruined seven years ago.

First, the effects of Kubel’s departure. This pretty much guarantees that (barring a trade) the Twins will open 2012 with an outfield of Josh Willingham, Denard Span, and Ben Revere. The loss of Kubel will probably put a dent in the Twins power production, but it could also be a boost to the outfield’s range, as both Span and Revere are far better defenders. Also on the plus side of the ledger, the Twins will receive a compensatory draft pick, #49 overall.

For Kubel, it will be a chance to display his offensive prowess in a hitters’ park. Don’t be surprised if you see a jump in Kubel’s home run total next year, as it’s far easier to hit one out in Chase Field than in Target Field – if Twins hitters are to be believed. J.J. Hardy hit 30 homers his first year with the Orioles, a fact that irked many who didn’t want him to be traded. I could definitely foresee something similar happening with Kubel. If he suddenly becomes a .300/30/100 hitter, a lot of people in the Twin Cities will be unhappy.

It wasn’t that long ago that Kubel looked like a lock to become a perennial .300/30/100 hitter for the Twins. He destroyed the minor leagues with a .352/.414/.590 minor league line in 2004. After a callup in September of that year, when Kubel hit .300/.358/.433 in 67 PAs, pundits were touting Kubel as a 2005 Rookie of the Year frontrunner. Baseball America ranked him as the #17 prospect in the game. Along with 2004 rookies Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, Kubel would form part of a three-headed monster or left-handed superstar sluggers. It looked like the Twins would have their own Murderer’s Row for the next decade.

Of course, that didn’t happen. In October of that year, Ryan Raburn accidentally pulled a Tonya Harding on Kubel, crashing into him and taking out his knee during an Arizona Fall League game. Instead of energizing a powerful Twins lineup in 2005, Kubel spent the season rehabbing the knee, which by all accounts has never been 100% since the AFL incident. He showed moments of brilliance at the plate in 2006, but overall his transition into an everyday Major Leauger was much rockier than it should have been.

The Twins were left with a player who never quite realized his original potential. A weak knee slowed Kubel down in the outfield, forcing him to spend much more time as a DH than he would have liked. I don’t have any proof of this, but I also think the knee problems affected his timing and power at the plate. Aside from 2009, when Kubel hit .300 with 28 homers and 103 RBI, he has never been more than a shadow of the player who lit up AA and AAA pitching in the early 2000s. 2009 (2.7) and 2011 (1.1) are the only seasons so far where Kubel had a WAR greater than 1.0.

It all adds up to a depressing story, albeit one that we’ve heard many times before in pro sports. A young, hardworking player is on the brink of success, only to have it all ripped away from him through no fault of his own.

Still only 29 years old, it’s completely possible that Kubel will have a couple more good seasons, but there’s no guarantee of that. The Twins made the right choice in letting him go. They’ll save money, and they can use the compensatory pick to help restock the farm system that once produced super-prospects like Kubel on a regular basis.

I hope the change of scenery is positive for Kubel as well. It would be a great story if he regained his mojo in the same state where it was so cruelly taken from him.