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Diamondbacks Decide They Gotta Have More Kubel

The exodus of former Twins players to the NL West continued on Monday with DH-cum-OF Jason Kubel eschewing the draw of Coors Field with teammates Kevin Slowey and Michael Cuddyer and heading for the warmer confines of Phoenix and the Arizona Diamondbacks. If you’re puzzled about how Kubel fits into Arizona’s plan, you aren’t the only one.

The good news for fantasy owners is that Kubel’s biggest deficiency is his defense, and it plum doesn’t matter unless you’re in the rare league that uses +/- or UZR as a category. It may cost him a few plate appearances at the end of games as the Diamondbacks bring in a defensive replacement for him, but he isn’t grievously terrible in the field and shouldn’t lose too much time. It isn’t as though his defensive prowess is a secret, chances are good that the Snakes are fully aware of his issues out there and have decided his bat is worth it.

If Kubel had been able to repeat his 2009 form in either of the subsequent two seasons, I think the public response to this deal would be better. That season, Kubel posted a .300 batting average, hit more than 25 HR, and drove in over 100 runs; he has done exactly none of those things again since. He wasn’t terrible in 2010 when he split time with Jim Thome as the Twins DH, but he wasn’t nearly good enough to fill a UTL spot or even an OF spot in most leagues. 21 home runs is decent production, but he failed to hit .250, which undermined his value.

2011 was something of a wasted year for Kubel: He missed 52 days from the end of May to the end of July with a sprained foot and the last few weeks of the season with another foot injury. My hunch is that he wasn’t really healthy even when he was on the active roster, which helped to contribute to his startlingly poor season. A .766 OPS isn’t awful for someone with second base, shortstop, or third base eligibility, but it is just not good enough in an outfield corner or from a DH. While I don’t expect his 2009 production to pop back up any time soon — career highs are so called for a reason — there are a few things that give me at least a little hope about Kubel.

First, the obvious park differences. Kubel will be leaving a park that is tough on hitters generally, but particularly unfriendly to lefties, and heading to a relatively hitter-friendly park and one that coddles lefties pretty well: Citi Field as a park factor of 114 for lefties. Kubel may not be a true dead-pull hitter, but 70 percent of his career home runs have been pulled, so having a friendlier home habitat will help him as much as it will help anyone.

Second, Kubel is moving to one of the best medical staffs in baseball. If my hunch is right, and that Kubel played much of the year hurt, it will behoove him to move into the care of Ken Crenshaw and his team. Kubel hasn’t had a high number of DL stints, but has dealt with many smaller injuries, something a different medical staff may have more success treating.

Lastly, Kubel will get consistent playing time and won’t be switching between roles. While it’s impossible to say how much the DH-RF-LF-Bench rotation hurt Kubel, it can’t have helped him at the plate. In Arizona, he will be the left fielder, full stop. Justin Upton is set in right; Chris Young is locked in, in center, and DH isn’t even an option. It isn’t likely to make a huge difference, but any little helps when you’re a DH coming off a season with a wOBA of .333.

The new park is obviously the biggest boon for Kubel in this move. The other two factors are happy bonuses, the kind of thing that can turn a really good season into a great one, but Kubel has to get to the really good point all by his lonesome first. It isn’t as though I dislike Kubel, but in mixed, I just see too many better options out there on draft day. There is a chance that the park will play to his strengths enough to make him worth an early waiver wire pick, but I want to see that happening before I grab him. There’s an argument to be made that he’s worth a late draft grab in mixed, and I can see that, but he’s still something of a fringe guy in my mind.

In NL-only, the outfield pool is shallow enough that I don’t mind grabbing Kubel as a starter. Admittedly, it’s a gamble, but he’s still near the prime of his career and even when he’s been mired in down years, he has still finished with a wRC+ above 100.

The last thing that is important to remember about Kubel is what game you’re actually playing. I don’t get the deal for Arizona in a baseball context: I think they’ve overpaid for a player they don’t really need, and displaced a better player by doing so. The thing is, none of that matters in fantasy. You’re going to see and hear a lot of criticism of Kubel and of the deal, which is fine, but when he’s healthy, he’s a decent offensive player moving to a park that fits his strengths. He’s a better player than he showed in 2011 and he’s in a better situation than he was in, in Minnesota. Does that make him worth a mid-round pick? No, but it does mean he’s likely to be undervalued by people who believe the prevailing views on him as a complete baseball player. Something to keep in mind on draft day.