MINNEAPOLIS -- Last week, Twins outfielder Jason Kubel finally connected for his first home run of the year against competitive pitching. Sure, it was at the Instructional League down in Florida. And sure, he knew it didn't count in the statistics. After the year Kubel endured, he didn't care. In fact, he was pretty happy. "I didn't show it when I was running, but I was excited about it," Kubel said by phone from Fort Myers, Fla. "Just to be in there, that's fun."
Kubel, recovering from a major left knee operation that wiped out his entire 2005 season, joined nearly 40 low-level Twins Minor Leaguers during the final weeks of the Instructional League and played a handful of games. Since these games were more informal, he was allowed to bat third every inning so he could get more chances to swing. It was the latest and most advanced step in his long and tedious rehabilitation. But he was still wearing a brace that limited his ability to run and he was not allowed to slide or play defense. The knee still had some swelling, but Kubel reported feeling no pain. "He's doing fine," said Twins general manager Terry Ryan, who watched Kubel play in three games last week. "His hand-eye coordination, it doesn't look much different. We're hoping the doctor will let him take the brace off this winter, which will allow him to play normal." Life deviated far from normal for Kubel one year ago while he was participating in his first game in the Arizona Fall League. Involved in an outfield collision with another player while pursuing a fly ball, he suffered torn anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments in his left knee. After surgery, doctors told him he would be sidelined for a year. There is never a good time for a player to suffer a serious injury, but the timing of the 23-year-old's mishap seemed particularly unfortunate. The Twins' Minor League Player of the Year in 2004 after he began the year in Double-A, Kubel reached the big leagues by late August and batted .300 with two homers in 23 games. He was named to the postseason roster and was expected to challenge for a regular spot in the lineup in 2005. "This was something I worked my whole life for, and then that happened," Kubel said. "I'm just happy that next year is coming pretty soon. It was tough sitting and watching every day." While the Twins were up north during the season, Kubel spent most of his days in Fort Myers doing rehabilitation. With the Instructional League done, he plans to split winter between Florida and his home in Palmdale, Calif. "All I do is work out, lift weights, and I do lots of exercises and running," Kubel said. "That's about it." One step on the road back Kubel won't be taking is playing winter ball in Latin America. Because he can't play at 100 percent yet, it is considered too much of a risk. Plus, he has plans to get married in December. With more than three months remaining until the Twins are scheduled to report to Spring Training, Kubel has time to get fully healthy. Whether he'll be a factor in camp, the club isn't speculating. With right fielder Jacque Jones a likely departure as a free agent, there could be a battle to replace him. "We'll have to wait until we get him out there," Ryan said. "I hope he will be able to compete for a spot. He's not at the point where he can run, but he's making steady progress." Kubel's plan was more ambitious. Just being healthy and making the team won't be enough. "I want to start in right field," he said. "That's what I want and that's what I'm working for."
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.