The Trouble With Counting on Kubel
by, 02-27-2014 at 11:17 PM (548 Views)
Although he was signed to a non-guaranteed minor-league deal, the Twins appear to have big plans for Jason Kubel.
"We brought him over here for a reason," said Ron Gardenhire recently.
That reason is to add a powerful veteran bat to a lineup that ranked 11th in the AL in OPS and 12th in runs scored last year. Kubel has a lengthy track record of slugging success, with six straight seasons of above-average production leading up to 2013, and he has familiarity within the organization.
But relying on Kubel to provide a much-needed offensive upgrade is very risky business.
We all know that last season was a struggle for the 31-year-old. He was designated for assignment by the Diamondbacks in August with a .610 OPS, and he then landed in Cleveland, where he limped down the stretch with three hits and 10 strikeouts in 23 plate appearances.
Kubel spent much of the campaign dealing with a quad injury, to which he largely attributes his poor results. At full health, the hope is that he'll be able to rebound and regain the explosiveness in his bat that has long made him an asset.
No one's hoping that happens more than me, because I was an enormous Kubel backer during this time here and -- as a Twins fan -- I obviously want to see the club score more runs.
However, for multiple reasons, Kubel seems like a somewhat shaky bet to provide strong production as a regular at this stage in his career.
Strikeouts were a glaring issue for the Twins in 2013, when they ranked second in the majors in whiffs with a whopping 1,430. They broke their franchise record for strikeouts with more than a month left to play.
Unfortunately, strikeouts happen to be the No. 1 warning flag for Kubel, whose ability to make contact has steadily deteriorated in recent years. Here's a glance at his strikeout rates since his best season in 2009:
Year | K-rate
2009 | 18.3%
2010 | 19.9%
2011 | 21.4%
2012 | 26.4%
2013 | 31.7%
Yikes. Last year's mark really jumps out. Among 316 MLB players to make 250 or more plate appearances, only seven fanned more frequently. Even though Kubel managed a robust .311 batting average on balls in play, he still hit just .216 overall. That's the nature of things when you head back to the dugout without putting the ball in play nearly a third of the time.
So the Twins need to hope that Kubel can cut back on the K's and start at least putting the ball in play. With better health, he may be able to do so, but his career trend suggests that last year's contact issues might go beyond injury side-effects.
Kubel has always been a liability against left-handers. Local fans will recall this from his days in Minnesota, and it hasn't gotten any better. Last year, the D-Backs and Indians did their best to shield him, limiting him to 40 plate appearances (out of 291) against southpaws.
When he did have to stand in against a same-sided pitcher, the results were brutal, as Kubel went 6-for-37 with one extra-base hit (a double), three walks and 16 strikeouts.
Ron Gardenhire has never been known for employing strict platoons, but it should be plenty clear that Kubel can't be facing lefties. Since he isn't a very good runner or defender, this leaves him with a pretty limited value offering. He needs to mash right-handed pitching in order to merit any kind of regular playing time.
On the bright side, that has been Kubel's greatest skill throughout his career. He's a lifetime .275/.340/.483 hitter with 118 homers against RHP, and when at his best he has ranked among the game's very elite righty mashers.
But of course that wasn't the case last season, as he hit just .225/.304/.358 and struck out in 30 percent of his appearances.
This is the key area where Kubel can and absolutely must improve by leaps and bounds. If not, it's going to be tough to justify a spot on the 25-man roster, much less a spot in the starting lineup.