The seeds for a reunion were planted last September, when the Cleveland Indians visited Target Field and Jason Kubel was finishing up his worst season as a major leaguer.
Kubel, who was drafted and developed, and then flourished, as a Twin, talked to former teammates and staff members about old times. He also stopped by manager Ron Gardenhire’s office.
“Why aren’t you in this clubhouse?” Gardenhire said.
“Let’s talk over the winter,” Kubel replied.
Those talks turned into a minor league contract for Kubel, 31, and a chance to turn his career back to when he was a bigger threat at the plate. Kubel technically has to earn a spot on the roster, but Gardenhire, speaking at the Twins’ annual media luncheon Friday, looked forward to Kubel providing run production that was severely lacking in 2013.
Kubel, in town for TwinsFest, was thrilled to find out that his original team still believed in him.
“I just love everyone there,” Kubel said. “They kept saying, ‘It would be nice to have you back.’ ”
Kubel, whose brother-in-law is Twins relief prospect Michael Tonkin, batted .216 last season between Arizona and Cleveland with five home runs and 32 RBI in 89 games. It was a long drop-off from 2012, when he batted .253 with 30 home runs and 90 RBI and became a fan favorite with the Diamondbacks.
What happened last season? Kubel believes the problems began on April 13, when he landed on the disabled list because of a strained left quad. He returned two weeks later.
“A couple games back into it, I dove for a ball in the outfield and it came back and stayed for three months,” said Kubel, who left the Twins after receiving a two-year, $15 million deal with Arizona in December 2011. “It was my left leg and I couldn’t run. It was there all year, and it made it tough. I believe that’s what led me to be down all year.”
That should sound familiar to Twins fans. In 2011, Kubel led the AL with a .351 batting average on May 8. He was batting .310 on May 31 when he landed on the disabled list after spraining his left foot during a game at Detroit. He returned, but the foot was a nuisance the rest of the season, as he batted only .238 over his final 67 games.
When Kubel is healthy, he is clearly a threat. And Gardenhire doesn’t see why Kubel can’t return to his old form. What role — full-time, part-time, platoon — has not been determined.
“The one thing we all know is that when he gets hot, he can carry you,” Gardenhire said. “I’m not saying he’s here to do that, but I think he can be very valuable to us if he comes to spring training and proves that and be healthy.”
The Twins were 25th in the major leagues in runs scored last season and were at the bottom in situational hitting. So it’s understandable that they would turn to someone like Kubel, who was productive for most of his seven seasons with the Twins and was the first player to hit a home run at Target Field during a regular-season game. He came through the Twins farm system as the best hitting prospect not named Joe Mauer. In 2004 he batted .377 in 37 games at Class AA New Britain, then .343 with 16 homers and 71 RBI in 90 games at Class AAA Rochester before being called up to the majors late in the season.
But injuries to his left leg have slowed him down. He missed all of 2005 after tearing three ligaments in his left knee during Arizona Fall League play in 2004. He recovered from that setback to become a Twins regular, but he has had foot problems, along with that sore quad last year.
He has spent the offseason working out near his home in Calabasas, Calif., and has been hitting in a cage he had built at his home. While speaking from his home earlier this week, he talked about how uplifting it was to hear from the Twins how much they wanted him back.
“I wanted to come back before that anyway,” he said. “I have a bunch of friends there. I love the coaching staff. And my brother-in-law is there, too, which is awesome.’’