Jason Kubel is finally where he belongs, at the top.
After a career-best season in 2009, Kubel, 27, proved to be one of baseball’s premier designated hitters, working at a considerably lower rate than many of his contemporaries.
At this point, however, Kubel isn’t worried about getting a big payday.
That will come in time. He’s still young and has plenty of time to earn David Ortiz or Travis Hafner money.
For now, he seems content to be healthy and guaranteed a spot on the roster.
That may seem odd, but it hasn’t always been this way for Kubel.
In 2004 he was named the Twins Minor League Player of the Year after posting an impressive .352/.414/.590 line with 22 home runs, 100 RBIs, 42 doubles, and 16 stolen bases.
He destroyed minor league pitching all-year long, working his way up from Double-A to Triple-A, and eventually earning a September call-up.
In the majors he put up an impressive .300/.358/.433 line in 23 games and continued to establish himself as one of baseball’s most promising young hitters.
Kubel was so highly-regarded within the organization that he was placed on Minnesota’s postseason roster for the club’s first-round clash with the New York Yankees.
Kubel saw limited action in the postseason, but showed the poise and demeanor of a player who belonged in the big leagues.
After the Twins were eliminated, Kubel went to play in the Arizona Fall League to prepare for Spring Training where it was believed he would compete for the right field job.
It was during an AFL game that an outfield collision with AFL teammate Ryan Raburn changed Kubel’s career trajectory forever.
The collision caused severe ligament damage, including a torn ACL and meniscus. It was described in some reports that Kubel’s knee had “exploded” in the collision.
Then-general manager Terry Ryan didn’t try to cut any corners when describing the injury to the media.
“It’s a bad deal,” Ryan said. “It’s going to be a long ordeal.”
Those pointed comments led many to question whether or not Kubel would ever make it back from the injury, let alone play at anywhere near the level he had before.
Kubel underwent major reconstructive surgery on his knee and missed all of the 2005 season while recovering from the career-threatening injury.
He showed some improvement by Spring Training and was named the club’s Opening Day right fielder in 2006, but struggles relegated him Triple-A by mid-April.
Back in the minors he put up good—but not great—numbers and appeared to regain his once-vaunted stroke at the plate.
Kubel returned re-joined the Twins in May and put up solid numbers, hitting .291/.324/.485 in the first-half. It appeared as though he’d taken the express lane on the road to recovery.
Unfortunately, his surgically-repaired knee proved it couldn’t handle the strain in the second-half as his numbers slipped badly, to .163/.209/.233
In the end he was limited to just 235 at-bats, as a result of lingering knee pain.
He finished the season with a disappointing .241/.279/.386 line and just eight home runs and 26 RBIs.
Kubel knew as well as anyone that 2007 would be an important year.
After fading down the stretch the year before, he showed up with the intention of proving himself healthy and capable of playing every day.
Early in the 2007 season, his performance, or lack thereof, left many wondering if the knee injury had completely destroyed his career.
After his weak finish in 2006, Kubel hit just .237/.287/.301 through his first 100 at-bats in 2007, however, he seemed to finally get things on track in mid-May and hit an astounding .283/.349/.492 over his final 100 games.
By season’s end, Kubel had appeared in 128 games and garnered 418 at-bats, bouncing between designated hitter and left field.
Despite the shaky start to the year, he put up a solid .273/.335/.450 line with 13 home runs, 65 RBI, 31 doubles, and even managed to swipe five bases.
It appeared that he was well on his way back to the top.
In 2008, Kubel became the club’s permanent DH after Minnesota acquired left fielder Delmon Young from Tampa Bay in the offseason.
It was in that role that Kubel began to thrive. With less pressure on his knee from not playing the field he appeared in 141 games and received 463 at-bats.
Kubel made the most of those at-bats by posted a career-best .272/.335/.471 line with 20 home runs and 78 RBIs.
His big 2008, prompted the club to sign him to a two-year, $7.2 million deal that bought out his remaining arbitration years and contains a $5.25 million option for the 2011 campaign.
Kubel showed his gratitude for the investment by busting out in a big way in last season.
He set career-highs across the board by appearing in 146 games, tallying 578 at-bats and posting an imposing .300/.369/.539 line with 28 home runs, 35 doubles, and 103 runs batted in.
He was ranked among the top designated hitters in all of baseball last year. In fact, he was statistically neck-and-neck with Toronto’s Adam Lind for the best in all of baseball.
Kubel finished third in total runs behind Lind and Boston’s David Ortiz. He finished just behind Lind in nearly every other category including home runs, RBIs, doubles, total bases, batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage.
Five years ago, it looked like Jason Kubel’s career was over before it had ever really begun.
Today, he’s finally reached the end of the long road back and can look forward.
And rumor has it the view is pretty good from the top.