What Could Have Been?

19 Dec

also available at www.SethSpeaks.net

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?

Feel free to comment

9 Responses to “What Could Have Been?”

  1. darin December 20, 2011 at 12:35 am #

    Good luck to Jason Kubel in Arizona. I will miss him the most of all the players that left this off season. With Texas winning the Yu Darvish posting, if they can sign him to a contract what pitcher would be your best trade target? Would you try to trade for one of the following Colby Lewis, Matt Harrison, or Derek Holland? I doubt any of them would come cheap but they would be worth the price.

  2. dadandrusko December 20, 2011 at 6:58 am #

    Damn. Terrible luck for Jason. Also the story of the idiotic way the Twins do business: wait until it’s too late and then get, at best, a draft pick.

  3. Gary December 20, 2011 at 9:09 am #

    And for me, although I’m dating myself, what might have been if Tony O hadn’t messed up his knee? Or if his injury had taken place with the surgical expertise of today. Sad about Kubel’s circumstances, but if we had seen a healthy Tony O during all of his career, there would have been some jaw-dropping statistics put up. Too bad about the injury filled years of certain highly paid Twins in recent years. Too bad that Tony has not been able to pass on some of his “grit” to the current squad. I’m sure there were plenty of days that Tony was in great pain, but he played to the best his physical condition would allow without complaint and without excuses. All the while being a good person and a solid member of the community. If the people voting had seen him play, he’d be in the HOF.

  4. darin December 20, 2011 at 11:01 am #

    Look on the bright side they will have a bunch of draft picks in the draft. The reality is they will draft a bunch of pitchers who pitch to contact and some hitters who hit for average and no power. The Twins need to get some power pitchers and actually can strike guys out. Oh yeah,last thing get a real manager, actual coaches and a GM who is not covered in dust.

    • John Gregory December 20, 2011 at 9:04 pm #

      The #2 overall pick, I have much higher expectations for than that. For the compensation picks, which come after roughly the first 30 “real” first rounders, the odds of success (whatever picking mechanism you use) are quite low – I’ve taken a look at late 90’s drafts (far enough back that full careers of the players are pretty clear) and the supplementary picks have roughly a 25% chance of making any significant major league contribution. I mean, I’m counting guys like Jason Repko when I say “significant”.

      Getting a couple of picks when a guy like Cuddyer leaves isn’t zilch, but you certainly don’t base roster decisions on “oh boy, we get supplemental draft picks if we go a certain direction”.

  5. tpetter December 20, 2011 at 1:51 pm #

    Seth really, we’re quoting Tiffany now?

  6. JA December 20, 2011 at 2:25 pm #

    Following Kubel as he came through the system as great fun. He had plenty of promise coming into 2004, but that year was great to follow. Times were different then, the info wasn’t as easy to follow. But with sources like MILB.com and Baseball America it was fun to follow. I am hoping a Oswaldo Arcia to possibly have this kind of breakthrough year in 2012, and force his way to the majors.

  7. mike wants wins December 20, 2011 at 3:55 pm #

    At least the Twins didn’t sign Betancourt….what is KC thinking?

  8. darin December 20, 2011 at 9:52 pm #

    The Twins should make a trade with the Yankees for AJ Burnett. Throw a couple of decent prospects and get New York to pay half the salary we could actually shape a rotation. Also, he could turned around getting out of New York like Pavano.

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