Last week, I expressed concern that Joe Mauer was more hurt than he or the team was letting on, and that various bumps and bruises were largely responsible for his disappointing numbers over the first few months of the season.
His recent playing time patterns have only helped confirm those fears. Since I posted my column about Mauer last Thursday, he has caught only three of the Twins' seven games. Twice he has sat out, and twice he has served as designated hitter. That's not the type of usage we're accustomed to seeing for the former MVP, who -- when healthy -- is typically behind the plate for the vast majority of the Twins' games.
To be clear, giving Mauer a break from time to time is necessary. And I don't mind using him in the DH spot on occasion. But there seems to be a perception that the Twins aren't hurting themselves too much by feeding more and more starts to Drew Butera. That's just not the case.
Butera is arguably (maybe not even arguably) the worst hitter in all of the major leagues. After posting a miserable .560 OPS as a 25-year-old in Triple-A last year, he has gone on to hit .192/.211/.301 for the Twins this year, with five extra-base hits and one walk in 83 plate appearances. An out-making machine with minimal power, Butera is an enormous liability whose offensive production roughly mirrors what one would expect from a pitcher in the National League. When he's starting and Mauer's at DH, as was the case last night, it means that the Twins are replacing Jim Thome or Jason Kubel with Butera in the lineup. There are no words to fully describe the size of this drop-off.
The Twins' stated position for the increased playing time for Butera is that the team's starters like pitching to him, especially Carl Pavano. There are indications that Butera could even serve as Pavano's personal catcher for the remainder of the season. I don't think I buy the notion.
While it's true that Pavano has performed well over his last few starts with Butera behind the plate, and also true that Pavano was roughed up the last time he pitched to Mauer, it's important to point out that the ugly start came in Toronto against the power-laden Blue Jays lineup. That's about as unfavorable of a match-up as you can find for Carl Pavano, and I'm thinking it's more largely responsible for the mustachioed hurler's struggles than who was receiving the pitches. Especially when you consider that Pavano's two strong starts before the Toronto shellacking -- an outing against the Rays in which he allowed two earned runs over 6 1/3 innings and a complete game shutout against the Mets in New York -- both came with Mauer behind the plate.
Meanwhile, Francisco Liriano didn't seem to have any issues throwing to Mauer on Monday night or during his stellar outing against the White Sox just after the All-Star break. Nor did Kevin Slowey seem to be limited by Mauer's presence when he hurled six innings of one-run ball on Monday night.
Indeed, differences between Butera's and Mauer's game-calling ability seem mostly anecdotal and reactionary, especially considering that Mauer has won Gold Gloves in both of the past two seasons and has often been lauded for his work behind the plate in the past. If a difference between the two exists, it doesn't come close to making up for the gargantuan offensive drop-off that the Twins experience when Butera is in the lineup.
Of course, the Twins have still been playing pretty well lately, owing largely to some fairly pitiful competition. Indeed, it could be that Ron Gardenhire is taking advantage of this soft spot in the Twins' schedule to get the banged-up Mauer some much needed rest in preparation for the stretch run. Perhaps the catcher's offensive outburst on Tuesday night reflects that the rest is paying off. If that's the case, I take my hat off to Gardy, who may be employing a brilliant managerial strategy.
However, if he truly believes that the Twins are ever a better team with Butera in the lineup and Mauer at DH, he's loony. Mauer loses a great deal of his value when he's playing at DH, particularly when his back-up hits like a pitcher. If this trend of more frequently using Mauer in the designated hitter spot continues through the rest of the season, the Twins could be in some trouble.
My suspicion, though, is that all this rhetoric from the Twins' coaches about Butera's great chemistry with the pitchers is mostly a front, and that the team doesn't want to admit that their newly re-signed star player is badly in need of some additional time away from catching duties. If that's the case, I have no problem with Mauer getting a little extra rest so that he'll be more effective when the Twins get back to playing legitimate clubs.
I just wish that the answer wasn't playing the league's worst-hitting position player nearly half the time. How about some starts behind the plate for Jose Morales?
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