FORT MYERS, FLA - Things have turned out well for the Twins, with Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, the "M&M boys," winning a batting title and MVP award, respectively, in 2006.
Only one problem: The original script called for the "Jason, Joe and Justin Show," because outfielder Jason Kubel was considered as fine a hitting prospect as Mauer and Morneau.
"He hits the ball on the barrel a lot," said Rob Antony, Twins director of baseball operations. "When we used to talk about guys with a real swing, a really good hitter, we talked about Mauer and Morneau -- and Kubel was right up there with the best hitters in the organization."
But Kubel has become the forgotten hitting prospect after struggling with knee injuries in 2005 and 2006 that curtailed his progress.
Kubel missed the entire 2005 season after he tore three ligaments in his left knee during Arizona Fall League play in October 2004.
Although he returned last season, Kubel favored the knee, couldn't run, had poor range in the outfield, gained weight, hit just .241 with eight homers and 26 RBI in 220 at-bats and needed offseason surgery on his right knee to repair a slightly torn meniscus.
His goal is simple: to stop hearing about what he was and show everyone what he is. He's batting .333 this spring with a team-high four RBI. Now completely healthy -- he's made a diving catch and has even tried to steal a base this spring -- Kubel is able to focus on hitting.
"I feel a little better," he said. "I'm starting to hit the ball a little better. I'm starting to turn it around. I'm trying to stay down and use the whole field. I'm picking up everything pretty good."
2004 was huge
Even before 2004, Kubel impressed the Twins. A 12th-round pick out of Highland (Calif.) High School, Kubel hit .282 in rookie ball that year, but he had a wide-open stance and waved his bat around in the batter's box.
Jim Dwyer, then Twins minor league hitting coordinator, got him to be more quiet, closed his stance some "and it worked from there," Kubel said.
Kubel hit .331 in rookie ball in 2001, .321 at Class A Quad Cities in 2002 and .298 at Class A Fort Myers in 2003.
Then he served notice during spring training in 2004 that he was headed to another level.
"It was over at the Boston complex," said Stan Cliburn, his manager at Class AA New Britain that season. "They had three lefties that day, and he hit two home runs into the lakes at the minor league complex over there.
"That really caught my attention that day. Usually early in the spring, facing lefthanded pitching, you rarely see a kid who stays in there and handles them like he did. And he carried it into the season."
Kubel hit .512 from April 8-19 and kept going. He was batting .377 with six homers and 29 RBI in 37 games when he was promoted to Class AAA Rochester.
"I could see everything," Kubel said of the season. "I was able to hit it where it was pitched. I could hit for power when I wanted to. It was clicking right then."
Cliburn, now Rochester's manager, said, "He had that sound you look for off the bat."