Thursday, March 15, 2007

Position Analysis: Designated Hitter

Projected Starter: Jason Kubel
2006 Stats: .241/.279/.386, 8 HR, 26 RBI

Kubel's knees may limit him to DH duty this year.

Potential Backups: Jeff Cirillo, Rondell White, Matthew LeCroy, Ken Harvey

Out of all the Twins offensively talented minor leaguers that fans couldn't wait to see in the majors a few years back, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau were at the top of an elite three-man list. The other member was Jason Kubel. However, after a knee injury in the 2004 Arizona Fall league took him out of 2005 play and rendered him largely ineffective last year, Kubel's talent has been forgotten by some. Many now are picking him to be the "surprise" or "break-out" player for this year. People who followed his minor-league path won't be surprised at all if Kubel busts out with a big season.

In 1,654 minor-league at-bats, Kubel hit .320/.385/.499 with 49 home runs and 316 RBI. Two years stand out. In 2002, at Single-A Quad City, Kubel hit .321/.380/.521 with 17 HR and 69 RBI. In 2004, he hit .377/.453/.667 in 138 Double-A at-bats with six homers and 29 RBI before hitting .343/.398/.560 in 350 Triple-A at-bats with 16 HR and 71 RBI. In total, Kubel hit .352 with 22 HRs and 100 RBI between the two levels. He put the icing on the cake by batting .300 with a couple home runs and 60 at-bats with the Twins after a late-season call-up.

Clearly, Kubel is an offensive talent. Neither Mauer or Morneau ever produced averages that Kubel did at each level and Mauer has never shown the power Kubel has. Kubel doesn't project the kind of home-run power Morneau has, but he has the talent to hit .320 with 40 doubles and 20 homers every year. He's showing that talent in spring training, where he's batted .409 so far.

Now, I certainly don't expect Kubel to reach that level of production this year. It's hard to know, for one, how Kubel will respond to work in the DH position. He's been very good defensively this spring, and general has much more to offer than Rondell White in the outfield. There is always the chance that Kubel would be better with the bat if he was allowed to use the glove. Then again, concerns remain about Kubel's knees, which have a chance to act up anytime.

There aren't many other options to DH. White was a horrible DH last year, as Mr. Nelson recently mentioned in his LF analysis, and the pool of other "candidates" is pretty pathetic. Cirillo is a good bench guy at this point, but he doesn't have the power to be an every-day DH. LeCroy has never turned into the talent he was drafted to be out of Clemson in 1997 and his inability to hit right-handed pitching or run the bases competently will always hold him back from being an option as a regular player, even in the DH spot. Harvey is injured and never was much of a talent to begin with.

With that, I'd say that Kubel, if he makes it through the whole season, will hit around .280/.345/.460 with 18 HR and 80 RBI. With more at-bats, I think his patience will return to what it was in the minors and he should show some power. Designated hitter won't be the strongest position in the Twins lineup, but it also shouldn't be the pathetic weakness it has been in past year. Kubel won't have too much pressure with Mauer, Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and Torii Hunter in front of him in the line-up.