Monday, March 23, 2009

Position Analysis: Designated Hitter

Likely Starter: Jason Kubel
2008 Stats: .273/.335/.471, 20 HR, 78 RBI

Is this the year Kubel takes the next step?

Potential Backups: Delmon Young, Brian Buscher, Joe Crede

Last year, I expected big things from Jason Kubel. Believing he'd thrive as a regular DH, I predicted that he'd post a hitting line that mirrored his work in the minors while ripping 20 homers and driving in 85 runs. In some ways, my projection was far too optimistic -- obviously Kubel was nowhere close to the .310 average or .380 on-base percentage I foresaw. In fact, his numbers in both those categories were almost exactly the same as the year before, which was disappointing. However, Kubel did make major strides in the power department, matching my 20-homer prediction precisely and coming very close to 85 RBI.

While Kubel's 2008 season wasn't necessarily the coming-out party I'd hoped for, it was in many ways a breakout year. He proved himself as a legitimate power threat in a lineup that sorely lacks pop, and in doing so earned himself a new contract. Yet, in order for Kubel to take the next step and become a truly great hitter, he needs to bring the batting average closer to the level he was at in the minors, where he was a .320 career hitter.

It's possible that this just isn't going to happen. Kubel has transformed into a very different hitter than he was in the minor leagues, one capable of hitting for more power but also one who strikes out far more often and doesn't hit for the big averages. Yet, what if he could maintain the solid power while cutting down on strikeouts and bringing up the AVG/OBP?

One thing that is worth noting about Kubel's 2008 numbers is that -- like his 2007 numbers -- they were marred by a very slow start. On June 1 last year, Kubel held a dismal .238/.285/.384 hitting line. Then, over the last four months of the season, he batted .290/.364/.519 for an 883 OPS -- basically identical to the 880 OPS I predicted. In those final four months, Kubel also cut his strikeout-to-walk ratio to 1.5 after fanning more than three times for every walk in April and May.

Of course, we can't simply ignore the first two months of the season, and indeed it's starting to look like slow starts might be a persistent trend for Kubel (although the torrid spring he's currently having sparks some hope that he can break from that pattern this season). Furthermore, Kubel may not be able to match the career-high 517 plate appearances that he racked up last year since he'll likely be platooned to some degree with Delmon Young. Of course, all it takes is one injury in the outfield for Young to be needed elsewhere, and while Kubel's major-league track record against southpaws isn't pretty, I'm fairly confident he could hold his own against left-handers in the long run and I think he'll get a chance to see more of them if he's hitting well.

It seems like it's been forever since Kubel suffered that devastating knee injury in the Arizona Fall League that nearly derailed his career, but he's still only 26 years old. While the process has been slower than some would like, Kubel has been making steady adjustments and improvements since missing the entire 2005 season, and at times he's shown flashes of the phenomenal hitter that he was as a prospect. The final four months of the 2008 season gave us a prolonged glimpse of that player.

Now, he's right in the middle of his prime, working with a fresh contract, hitting in a lineup featuring some solid bats, and finally working with the full confidence of his manager (I don't think we'll see him benched on Opening Day in favor of Craig Monroe this year). Everything seems set up for Kubel to put together the big year I've been anticipating for some time. I would not be shocked if he finishes with better numbers than Justin Morneau.

Predicted 2009 Hitting Line for Kubel: .295/.365/.490, 25 HR, 80 RBI