FORT MYERS, FLA. – Ask his teammates, his manager or the guy who helped sign him to a contract last winter, and you’ll stump them all: What’s different about Jason Kubel this year?
“He’s the exact same guy,” manager Ron Gardenhire said.
Well, not entirely. The quiet, unassuming demeanor in the clubhouse is the same, and the pounce-on-a-mistake batting stroke looks unchanged after two seasons in Arizona and Cleveland. Even Kubel feels the same — “It actually feels like I never left,” he said. “I feel like I fit right in here. Always did.”
But as any fan with a vintage No. 16 jersey can tell you, Kubel has changed something — he’s wearing a different number than the one he wore during his seven seasons in Minnesota. Josh Willingham owns his old one, so Kubel is now No. 13.
Good thing he’s not superstitious, because 13 has been decidedly unlucky for Kubel thus far. When training camp resumes Tuesday, the projected Twins part-time designated hitter and lefthanded pinch-hitter will attempt to improve his 1-for-14 start at the plate.
“Kubel looks like he’s pressing a little bit, but the swing is there,” said assistant GM Rob Antony, who negotiated a non-guaranteed $2 million contract for Kubel on Dec. 13. That brought back one of the Twins’ best power hitters of the past decade. From 2007, when he became a full-time player, to 2011, his final season before signing with the Diamondbacks as a free agent, only Justin Morneau (with 106) outhomered Kubel’s 94 as a Twin. “He’s a veteran guy. You know, Willingham’s not [ready], Mauer’s not there, a lot of guys aren’t there yet. I’m not concerned about it this early.”
So far, none of the three former Twins invited back into the fold this season have showed many signs of regaining their former effectiveness, but with three weeks until Opening Day, nobody seems particularly concerned. Reliever Matt Guerrier has yet to pitch while recovering from surgery on his forearm, and Jason Bartlett, who sat out the 2013 season, is 0-for-14 this spring. “He looks a little rusty offensively,” Antony said of Bartlett, trying to return to the majors as a utility infielder, “and he looks like he hasn’t missed a beat defensively.”
Kubel, though, was the veteran most likely to make the Twins roster, and his slow start hasn’t changed that likelihood. As Gardenhire points out, Kubel — the first player ever to hit a home run in Target Field — is completely healthy again, something that wasn’t true a year ago when his career all but collapsed.
Before the Twins signed Kubel, “I talked to him, I wanted to make sure,” Gardenhire said. “He was beat up, and [the Diamondbacks] weren’t using him very much, either.”
Kubel’s first season in Arizona had been a 30-homer, 90-RBI success. But a small tear in a quadriceps put him on the disabled list only two weeks into the 2013 season, and even when he returned, the injury bothered Kubel for months.
“I couldn’t run very well. I couldn’t balance myself when I was hitting, or drive off my legs,” Kubel said. “I kept thinking it would get better, but it didn’t.”
Finally, Arizona waived him, and a September stint with the Indians went no better. His final numbers — a .216 average, five home runs, 92 strikeouts in just 290 plate appearances — attracted little interest on the free-agent market.
Until the Twins called, offering him a chance to play, coincidentally enough, with his brother-in-law, Twins rookie reliever Michael Tonkin, the brother of Kubel’s wife. Kubel has known Tonkin since he was in elementary school, “so it’s kind of crazy that we end up on the same team,” Kubel said. “It’s a lot of fun.”
The Twins believe Kubel can still have fun in their lineup, too. “I don’t think we believed last year was the end for him. He’s got a lot of baseball left in him,” Antony said. “I don’t think anybody said, ‘Geez, one bad year and he’s done.’ There’s a reasonable chance he can still be a productive major league hitter.”
Gardenhire, too, has confidence that Kubel can regain his form, albeit as a part-timer, saying: “We don’t plan on him being out there every day. We plan on him doing some DH-ing, some spot play, some pinch-hitting duties. His bat will take him as far as we need there.”
And the signs, despite the slow start, are good, the Twins insist.
“As he gets going, starts feeling it, the ball starts jumping. His [batting practice] is getting better,” Gardenhire said. “He’s starting to really launch them and get through the ball. You know what, just wait and see. ... I’m excited about it.”