A short pop up to shallow right field can often be an adventure. Put a questionable defender in right field and a questionable defender at second base, and it can become scary. The second baseman sprints out as fast as he can while looking over his shoulder to find the trajectory of the ball. The right fielder sprints in as fast as he can, figuring out if he can get to the ball. At some point, when the right fielder realizes he can’t catch the ball, or when he sees how close the second baseman is to him, the instinct is to come to an abrupt stop. The knee buckles, and so often we see the right fielder hop over the sliding/diving second baseman. It looks bad, but most often, both come up unscathed and appear in blooper videos.
In 2004 in the Arizona Fall League, Jason Kubel was the right fielder and Tigers’ prospect Ryan Raburn was playing second base. The above scenario played out. Kubel’s knee locked. Raburn slid underneath him, but Kubel’s cleat stayed in the outfield grass. The result was three torn ligaments in his left knee. Immediately it was known that his knee would need to be essentially rebuilt and he would miss the entire 2005 season.
I can’t help but ask, “What could have been?”
I guess I’ll sit back and reminisce while listening to Tiffany belt out (from Could been so Beautiful), “but what coulda been, is better than, what could never be at all.”
The Twins drafted Kubel out of high school in California in 2000. He spent two seasons with the GCL Twins before jumping to the Midwest League. In 2002 in Quad Cities, he hit .321/.380/.521 with 26 doubles and 17 home runs. In 2003, he hit .298/.361/.400 with 20 doubles and five home runs. Although he was a good prospect at that point, his 2004 season is the most impressive minor league season I have seen in the Twins system in a decade. He began the season by playing 37 games in Double-A New Britain. He hit .377/.453/.667 with 14 doubles, four triples and six home runs. He was promoted to Triple-A Rochester where he hit .343/.398/.560 with 28 doubles and 16 home runs in the final 90 games. He did so while walking nearly as often as he struck out. Although he was never a speed guy, he did steal 16 bases in that 2004 season.
The season ended with a September call-up to the Twins. In 23 games, he hit .300/.358/.433 with two doubles and two home runs. At a game I was at, he caught a ball at the warning track in left field at the Metrodome and threw out a runner trying to tag up from third and score. (I probably shouldn’t mention that said runner was Calvin Pickering, I suppose, but still…)
Yes, there was that infamous strikeout against Mariano Rivera in the 2004 playoffs, but that was a minor blip on the prospect radar.
At that time, Kubel was described as a guy who could ‘hit for average’ like Mauer while hitting for power like Morneau. He was a guy who was viewed as a possible .320/.380/.550, 30+ homer power guy. And it wasn’t just Twins fans wanting to believe. Baseball America ranked him as the #17 overall prospect in baseball before the 2005 season even after the knee injury.  In my eight or nine years of following the Twins minor leagues and its prospects, Kubel is probably the one hitter that I’ve been most excited about (Justin Morneau was right there too).
The knee injury cost him all of the 2005 season, but worse for the Twins, he would be on the big league Disabled List accumulating service time. When he came back in 2006, he really struggled, especially early in the season and wound up hitting .241/.279/.386 in 73 games. Again, he accumulated another year of big league service time. Although he never met the huge potential that many predicted, from 2007 through 2009, he averaged 138 games and hit . 282/.347/.490 with 29 doubles, 20 home runs and 82 RBI. That 2009 season, he played a career-high 146 games and hit .300/.369/.539 with 35 doubles, 28 home runs and 103 RBI. If ever the Twins have had a player built for Target Field, it was Jason Kubel and his swing.
If there was a player most hurt by the Twins transition to Target Field, it was Jason Kubel. Although he hit 23 doubles and 21 home runs in 2010, his batting average dropped to just .249. Normally a gap to gap, with power hitter, Kubel lost a lot of home runs to the right-center field gap at Target Field. He found himself changing his swing and approach at home games, needing to pull the ball more to yank home runs.
He was better in 2012. When he went on the Disabled List with his foot injury Memorial Day weekend, he was the easy choice for who the Twins would be represented by at the All Star game. He was hitting .310/.355/.465 with 14 doubles, five home runs and 30 RBI. Seemingly every time he came up with runners in scoring position, he came through. Unfortunately, he never fully recovered from the foot problems and hit just .229 in the second half of the season.
Yesterday, it came out that Kubel would be signing a two-year, $15 million deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks. If he gets 500 plate appearances in 2012, I can see him hitting 30 home runs. It will be very interesting to see how he is used, although that kind of contract commitment says he will be playing most every day. And in the outfield. Since Kubel was a Type B free agent, the Twins will add another supplemental first-round draft pick for him.
Kubel will not appear on too many Twins top 20 statistical lists. His 104 home runs is currently 17th in the organization’s history. He did so in 753 games with the Twins which is 100 less than anyone who ranks ahead of him. He couldn’t hit left-handers. The speed was lost. He wasn’t a great outfielder. There were and are faults with Kubel, but at the end of the day, I believe that he can hit. For average and for power. As solid as he was with the Twins during his tenure, I think I’ll always ask that same question.
What could have been?