Twins' Kubel has healthy leg up on things

Previously a top hitting prospect, Jason Kubel is back smacking the ball around, and he has even looked good in the outfield, his troublesome knees causing no trouble so far.

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."

Kubel batted a league-high .343 with 16 homers and 71 RBI at Rochester. His .352 combined average that season was higher than Mauer's at any level above rookie ball.

"It was like watching Joe [Mauer]," said shortstop Jason Bartlett, who played with Kubel in Rochester that year. "You knew he was going to hit the ball hard each time. I remember when he got called up. We were in Ottawa, and he got called up before the season ended so he could be on the playoff roster. I remember sitting in the dugout, telling him, 'You're never coming back here.' "

Kubel's first major league homer came on Sept. 21 that season off Jon Garland in Chicago. The next game, Kubel wasn't in the lineup, and White Sox manager Ozzie Gullien sought him out before the game.

"Man, you're good," Guillen said. "Why aren't you playing more? You can come over here!"

Kubel hit .300 in 23 games and even made the playoff roster, going 1-for-7.

Knee troubles, now gone?

The downward turn began in October during Arizona Fall League play. Kubel ran in after a sinking fly. His teammate, Detroit second baseman Ryan Raburn, ran out. As Kubel planted his left knee, Raburn slid into it, tearing three ligaments.

He missed the entire 2005 season -- one in which he could have won the starting right field job. He came back last year still favoring the knee. The 5-11 slugger's weight increased from 198 pounds to 216 late in the season because he couldn't run. It all led to his worst season as a pro

Still just 24, Kubel has time to return to form as a top hitting prospect. While showing so far that his bat hasn't suffered, he's also showing that he's healthy.

Kubel rushed in on a sinking fly ball last week in Sarasota, trying for the tough catch. He went down. A huge chunk of grass flew up.

Bartlett immediately had a flashback to October 2004.

"I was there in the AFL," he said. "It was the same exact kind of ball."

What made things worse was, after Kubel got up and threw the ball into the infield, he fell back down.

"Everyone was like, 'Oh, great,' " Bartlett said.

"I was sitting back there thinking, 'Oh, oh,' " Twins GM Terry Ryan said. "Just like anybody would."

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire rushed out to the field to check on Kubel, who looked at him and yelled, "I caught that ball!"

Kubel was fine, but the umpire had ruled that he trapped the ball.

"After he just about killed himself over there in Sarasota and made it through that, I guess we can say he can make it through just about anything," Gardenhire said. "I'm just letting him play and get some at-bats."

Now Kubel is poised to remind everyone that there's a third J.

Can three J's beat a pair of M's?

"I have to do it again, I guess,' " he said through a wry grin. "We'll see how it goes."

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