For Jason Kubel: A make-or-break year

The veteran outfielder's numbers were down last season, due in part to trying to hit home runs. He hopes to pile up the doubles in 2011.

FORT MYERS, FLA. - As he heads into his seventh major league season, Twins outfielder Jason Kubel finds himself thinking about how far he's come in his career and where it might be going. More specifically, whether it will continue with the Twins.

Kubel will be a free agent after this season and, at 28, could use a big year to help the Twins return to the postseason -- and perhaps motivate them to offer him another contract.

If he needs any more motivation, there's his 2010 season, during which he batted .249 with 21 homers and 92 RBI after going .300-28-103 the previous year.

"It has [made me think about my career],'' Kubel said. "Not just being with the Twins the whole time --I do want to stay with them. But I've been playing that long already. I was drafted in 2000. It's been a while, not just in general but with one team. So we'll see."

He indicated that he hasn't quite become the hitter he thought he'd be as he rose through the Twins farm system. That includes a 2004 season during which he hit .377-6-29 at Class AA New Britain, .343-16-71 at Class AAA Rochester and then .300 in 23 games with the Twins. A knee injury suffered during Arizona Fall League later that year led to reconstructive knee surgery that knocked him out for the 2005 season and derailed some of his development.

"I still think I can keep getting better,'' Kubel said." I don't think I've had a year after my knee surgery that was like the one before the injury. I'm still trying to find that again.''

Kubel is coming off a third consecutive season of at least 20 home runs. But after a year trying to pull balls to right field at Target Field -- and ending up with his worst numbers since becoming a regular -- Kubel pledges to stop worrying about homers and use the whole field.

"Just got into bad habits trying to do different things just because the ball wasn't flying the way we thought it would," Kubel said. "So I'm not going to do that anymore. I've been working on going back to normal. It will work; just might not get home runs.''

With his objectives clear, Kubel is off to a good start in spring training, batting .478 with one homer and seven RBI in nine games, That included a single to left and double to right on Friday during the Twins' 3-2 victory over Boston.

He's ready to embrace Target Field and collect doubles instead of lamenting about it being a tough park in which to hit home runs.

The bigger issue for Kubel is how often he'll get to prove he's changed.

He was expected to be the designated hitter last season and split left field duties with Delmon Young. When Justin Morneau was sidelined with a concussion on July 7, Kubel filled in as the right fielder, playing a total of 83 games there. Michael Cuddyer moved to first as Morneau's replacement and Jim Thome became the full-time DH.

Morneau started his first official spring game on Friday and looks poised to return to first base. Young is coming off a .298-21-112 season and should get most of the at-bats in left. Thome is back and won't be allowed to get rusty on the bench.

If everyone stays healthy, Kubel is looking at fewer than the 518 at-bats he had last season. How can he make a case for the Twins to keep him that way?

It's also potentially a daily headache for Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, who likely will use matchups, a coin and a Ouija board to figure out how to keep Young, Kubel and Thome productive and sharp.

"There are so many different options you have to keep people in the lineup and move people around,'' Gardenhire said. "Someone is going to have to sit out when you do that. Like I said, that it is a challenge, but it is always a nice challenge that we didn't get to use enough last year because of injuries.''

Kubel understands there might not be a lot of at-bats for him in the outfield this season. But the way he's started the spring suggests he plans on hitting whenever and wherever he's asked to play.

"I know I have plenty more years left,'' he said. "I [could] have as many years left as I have in. It's weird, so we will see.''

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