Ron Gardenhire started talking about Jason Kubel as a member of his 2014 lineup almost from the time the veteran outfielder was signed to a make-good, minor league contract on Dec. 13.
This seemed to be a presumptuous stance for Gardenhire to take. Kubel would be 32 in May and was coming off a frightful 2013. He batted .216 with five home runs and 32 RBI in a combined 97 games for Arizona and Cleveland.
The Kubel angst among Twins followers increased when he went 1-for-21 in the first couple of weeks of exhibition games.
“When you get to a certain age and have a bad season, the question can creep into your mind: ‘Am I done?’ ” hitting coach Tom Brunansky said.
Brunansky had no background with Kubel. Jason left for Arizona after the 2011 season; Brunansky arrived as the hitting coach in 2013.
“I had to build my own relationship with him,” Brunansky said. “I found out in our first couple of sessions in the batting cage that he had no worries about being done; that Jason believed he still could hit.”
So why the horrible start for Kubel in Florida?
“It was a case of keeping his head still; that’s all,” Brunansky said. “He was antsy and going forward with his head and his body on most swings. I don’t think when a hitter is coming off a season when he missed a lot of time with injuries that it’s unusual to see him antsy like that.
“Once Jason started staying still and staying back, that’s when we started to see his real swing. It’s a very aggressive swing. When he gets a pitch, he goes after it. I think that’s a great thing for some of our younger hitters to see.”
One reason for mid-March visitors to Fort Myers, Fla., to come away with a highly negative impression of the Twins’ projected lineup was Gardenhire’s resolute commitment to Kubel.
So far, the manager wins on this one, even if Gardenhire was absent as the Twins scored 17 runs (10-1 and 7-1) in winning the first two games of the current series with Kansas City.
Kubel had a triple off the right-field wall and an RBI on Friday. He had a single to start the six-run second and later a walk in that inning on Saturday. He has played in 10 games, batting .405 with six extra-base hits and seven RBI.
Bottom line: There appears to be life in Kubel’s lefthanded bat. Throw in an improvement with Trevor Plouffe (something more evident in spring training) and Chris Colabello’s occasional big hits, and the middle of this lineup hasn’t been as decrepit as it appeared would be the case in last month’s Florida sunshine.
Back in the early 2000s, three lefthanded hitters were ascending in the Twins system: Joe Mauer (the hitting machine), Justin Morneau (the slugger) and Kubel (somewhere in the middle).
Then, three days after the 2004 playoffs ended with a four-game loss to the Yankees, Kubel reported to Grand Canyon of the Arizona Fall League. He was playing his first game on Oct. 12. Teammate and second baseman Ryan Raburn plowed into Kubel’s left knee as they pursued a pop fly.
All the ligaments were ripped in that knee and Kubel missed the entire 2005 season.
In 2006, Morneau was the American League’s MVP and Mauer won the first of his three batting titles. There was also evidence of the Twins’ fondness for Kubel as a hitter:
Coming off a year lost to injury, Kubel opened the season on the big-league roster, went to Class AAA Rochester and then came back to Minnesota on May 23 as a replacement for injured Shannon Stewart.
He played through knee pain. It wasn’t until 2007 when Kubel was fully recovered from the Fall League mishap. Over the next four seasons, he hit 82 home runs and drove in 338 runs for the Twins. He had an aggressive swing and he could hit.
“I still can,” Kubel said Saturday. “It’s not like I’m old. I’m confident I have a few more years.”
Jason Kubel always has produced — including 30 home runs and 90 RBI in Arizona in 2012 — when healthy. And how does he feel at this moment?
“Fine,” he said. “No problems.”