Take a look at American League designated hitters listed by OPS and you'll find a familiar name atop the leaderboard. Jason Kubel's monster year has been overshadowed somewhat by the accomplishments of Joe Mauer -- who in three short months has already set a career high for homers while accumulating league-leading figures in on-base percentage and slugging percentage -- and Justin Morneau -- who leads all AL hitters in home runs and RBI and could even be a legitimate Triple Crown candidate if his average were just a tad higher. Yet, Kubel has developed into one of the league's premier sluggers and finally proven himself as the answer to this organization's long-standing woes at the DH position. It's been a long time coming.
Kubel has traveled a lengthy and difficult road to get to this point. He seemed poised to join Morneau and Mauer as a three-headed lefty-hitting monster several years ago before a devastating knee injury cost him his 2005 season and essentially cost him the following one as well as he battled residual injury effects and struggled to find himself at the plate. During that span, fans grew exasperated with Kubel's inconsistency. Ron Gardenhire became impatient and handed Kubel only sporadic playing time. Without a doubt, there were times when Kubel looked absolutely lost at the plate, and seemed nothing like a guy capable of developing into an elite hitter. But through it all, many people remained confident in Kubel and continued to bear in mind his spectacular minor-league track record and the unfortunate circumstances that had derailed his progression.
Last October, I drew a comparison between Kubel and the notorious "one that got away," David Ortiz. The point of the article was to dissuade notions that trading Kubel was a wise idea in light of the fact that he was a similarly talented hitter who had struggled with injury problems but had shown signs that a major breakout could be on tap. I noted in the article that I didn't expect Kubel to turn into the same type of hitter as did Ortiz -- a fearsome, elite power-hitting DH -- but he has in fact come closer than expected. Not only does Kubel lead all designated hitters in OPS, he also ranks sixth among all American League players in slugging percentage. He won't hit 40 home runs (not this year, anyway), but he's already tallied 40 extra-base hits in 310 at-bats and his immense power is undeniable.
Contemplating Kubel's success also reminded me of an article Dave Cameron wrote for FanGraphs back in January when Kubel signed his new contract with the Twins. Cameron essentially argued that "marginal" hitters of Kubel's caliber were not terribly difficult to find and that the Twins had overpaid substantially to lock up his services. While normally a big fan of Cameron's work, I took issue with the article at the time, pointing out some blatant fallacies in the presented argument, and at this point his take just looks flat-out ridiculous. Imagine what shape the Twins would be in if they had cut Kubel this winter and signed Eric Hinske in his stead. Yikes.
In Games 2 and 3 of their 2006 ALDS series against the A's, the Twins trotted out Jason Tyner as their designated hitter, which they'd done with some frequency during that season. Three years later, they boast a DH who leads the league in OPS at his position, is prime-aged and is locked up for the next two years. They have come a long way from those dark days of DH ineptitude, and they have patience to thank for it.