19 December 2011
In a very surprising move, the Diamondbacks signed OF Jason Kubel to a 2 year, $15M deal with an option for 2014. There is no question that Kubel can hit, but where will he play on the field?
The Diamondbacks seemed set in the outfield, with Justin Upton, Chris Young, and Gerardo Parra returning. This was a very good group defensively, with Parra collecting 12 Outfield Assists and winning a Gold Glove in LF. Parra was a surprise offensively in 2011, posting career highs in AVG (.292), OBP (.357), and SLG (.427). Upton is coming off a .289/.369/.529 season with 31 HR, and will clearly be the starting RF. Chris Young was good defensively in CF, but only hit .236/.331/.420. Paul Goldschmidt was expected to be the starting 1B, coming off a .250/.333/.474 performance since his August call-up, with Lyle Overbay serving as the backup. Now, the Diamondbacks certainly have more options.
There are several possible scenarios that could happen:
1) Kubel becomes the everyday LF, with Gerardo Parra becoming the 4th OF;
2) Kubel starts in LF, with Parra in CF against RHP, with Parra/Young starting against LHP
3) Kubel starts in LF, and Parra takes over in CF, with Chris Young traded;
4) Kubel starts in LF against RHP, with Parra starting against LHP;
5) Kubel platoons with Paul Goldschmidt at 1B;
6) Kubel rotates between 1B and LF, depending on slumps and injuries;
7) Kubel becomes a very expensive pinch hitter and backup at 1B/LF.
Let's start with a look at Kubel's offensive stats.
Kubel (age 29) has been a solid hitter throughout his career, and should post better numbers by moving from Target Field to more hitter-friendly Chase Field. Most importantly for the Diamondbacks, he bats left-handed, which does fill an important need for the club. The projected 2012 club was expected to start right-handed hiters Justin Upton, Chris Young, Paul Goldschmidt, Ryan Roberts, and Aaron Hill, with only Miguel Montero and Gerardo Parra batting from the left side. The shortstop is expected to be either LHB Stephen Drew (if healthy) or RHBs Willie Bloomquist or John McDonald. Either way, only Montero is the only LH power threat, and Kubel will certainly give them another strong left-handed hitter.
Defensively, Kubel can only be described as a below average defensive player. He has little speed, and reportedly does not get a good jump on fly balls. The Fans' Scouting Report gave him an overall score of 39 (out of 100), and FanGraphs' UZR gives him very poor scores, around -10 Runs per season. Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) also has Kubel as a below average defender, but only in the -1 to -3 Runs per season range. So maybe he's not as bad as UZR claims, but he's certainly not good.
Kubel has always shown significant platoon splits at the plate. For his career, he has an .833 OPS against RHP, and only a .678 OPS against LHP. So it wouldn't make much sense to start Kubel against a left-hander. In 2011, Parra hit equally well against both RHP (.782) and LHP (.790).
Meanwhile, Chris Young also had huge platoon splits in 2011, with a .939 OPS against LHP but only .694 against RHP. So if the club thinks Parra can handle CF defensively, then perhaps both Kubel and Parra could start against RHP, with Young resting against the tough right-handers. Goldschmidt showed no problems with RHP in his limited time last year, so it's not clear that platooning him makes sense right now.
I think Kubel will definitely be in the starting lineup against all right-handed starters. Probably that will be in LF when the season starts. Hopefully he will benefit from the more friendly hitting environment in Arizona, and his defense will not be as bad as measured by UZR.
Is this a good move for the Diamondbacks? Kubel definitely adds a much-needed left-handed bat to the team. And he gives the team much better depth at both 1B and the Outfield, where the primary backups were Willie Bloomquist and Lyle Overbay. But Kubel is expensive - his $7.5M salary puts him right up with Drew, Young, and Upton as the team's most expensive player. And his presence will reduce the playing time for some combination of Parra, Young, or Goldschmidt. Kubel does give the Diamondbacks insurance for any of the following:
1) Parra's offensive growth in 2011 was a fluke;
2) Goldschmidt's strikeout rates become a major liability;
3) Chris Young continues to struggle against RHP.
If any of those happen, then Kubel could be a very valuable addition. If not, then he still brings some balance to a right-handed heavy lineup, but in a big trade-off of defense for offense. Apparently the Diamondbacks had money to spend since Hiroki Kuroda did not accept the club's one year offer of around $12-13M, so the team decided to bring in more offense instead. Kubel is certainly a valuable player to have on the team, but it's just not clear that he will be worth the 2 year, $15M contract.