- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
Heading into this season, most fantasy owners regarded one obvious member of the Arizona Diamondbacks outfield as a top-10 guy or close to it and another as a reasonable 10th-round choice. Then there was Jason Kubel. Most of the discussion around him seemed to be that poor Gerardo Parra deserved a better fate than to be forced to the bench. Well, this is, of course, another reason why they play the games.
Heading into Thursday's game at Cincinnati, Arizona's top option on the Player Rater for the season has been Kubel, the former Minnesota Twins slugger whose winter acquisition came under scrutiny. Kubel, 30, hasn't been a consistent offensive powerhouse, and his defense and speed are lacking. But he's having a big season, with five more home runs (17) than any of his teammates, a team-leading OPS (.918), and he's second in hits and runs scored. By the way, nine of his teammates were selected earlier than Kubel, a 20th-round pick in ESPN average live drafts, including Ryan Roberts and Stephen Drew, who have combined for six home runs and a .238 batting average.
Today it seems obvious, but this couldn't have been as simple as leaving challenging hitter's venue Target Field for the relative luxury of Arizona's Chase Field, could it? Kubel is hitting .331 at home this season with a 1.088 OPS and 12 of his home runs, so clearly that has been a factor. A year ago, Kubel hit .253 with a .690 OPS and a mere four home runs in 43 home games. The low ADP had to also be a reflection that many believed Kubel's skills had diminished, or wouldn't see regular playing time. I was asked about him in March, and I said it's possible he would hit 25 home runs, adding that it's also possible he would have more injury woes (he played in only 99 games in 2011) and lose playing time to defensive stalwart Parra. ESPN Fantasy projected generous numbers (22 homers, 88 RBI, .284 average in 462 at-bats), but Kubel still was barely a top-200 choice.
There seems to be little risk now. Kubel isn't sitting for Parra. He's hitting left-handed pitching like never before. He's hitting either third or cleanup in the lineup, and he's showing consistency. He traded in plate discipline from May (17 walks, one home run) for just the opposite in June (six walks, seven home runs), and fantasy owners noticed. Kubel was 100 percent owned until a few days ago, when a hamstring injury cost him a few games, but he returned Wednesday to smack a pair of home runs off Cincinnati Reds right-hander Mat Latos.
Frankly, one must wonder where the fledgling Diamondbacks would be sans Kubel. Justin Upton has been one of the significant early-round busts in fantasy, on pace for less than half the home run total of last season, and rumor has it he's on the trade block. Personally, I find it shocking the Diamondbacks would even consider moving a 24-year-old who finished fourth in MVP voting a year ago, but that's their choice. Fantasy owners shouldn't do the same. I'd buy low there, and Upton will be firmly planted in next season's top 30, though at some discount from this season.
Meanwhile, center fielder Chris Young currently ranks an amazing 20th among Diamondbacks on the Player Rater, even behind pitchers Bryan Shaw and Patrick Corbin, thanks to doing next to nothing in the eight weeks since coming off the DL following a serious shoulder injury. Young was hitting .410 with five home runs and two steals after 11 April games before getting hurt. Since then he has hit .158 in May, .143 in June and .161 in July, with one stolen base total, and he's owned in half of ESPN's leagues. So much for that breakout season. I'd just drop the guy and presume he's hurt. He was never going to win a batting title with his approach anyway, but he's not providing 20-20 numbers anymore and he's hurting fantasy teams (and the Diamondbacks for that matter). At least Parra gets on base.
Kubel entered Thursday 37th among all hitters on the Rater, and 11th among all players for the past 30 days, and there's little reason for concern, other than the .352 BABIP, well above his career mark and a bit misplaced for a guy with little speed. OK, so he probably won't hit .300, but .280 works for me. Kubel is walking more, and his isolated power is up even on his career year of 2009, when he slugged 28 home runs. I didn't figure on him flirting with 30 home runs, but there doesn't seem to be anything fluky about his overall production. Upton and Young are bigger stories, of course, as they've angered many a fantasy owner, but Kubel has done his job better than expected.
In fact, while I project Upton will still lead this team in overall Player Rater value, I don't expect Kubel or second baseman Aaron Hill to slow down. Deal for all these fellows with confidence, and watch the Diamondbacks make a run for an NL postseason berth. They might not get all the way there, but this team shouldn't underachieve for all six months.