Less than two weeks ago, Joe Mauer patted his heart dozens of times and did a poor job of fighting back tears as he received ovation after ovation in what might have been (could have been? was?) the final game of his career.
As he contemplates ending a 15-year career, we’re all left contemplating something else: If Mauer does retire, who in the heck is going to play first base for the Twins next season? It’s a question the Twins have not had to consider often.
Doug Mientkiewicz, the defensive whiz, arrived in 1999, sharing the job with Ron Coomer. Mientkiewicz was demoted in 2000 but came back up 2001 and held the position until he was traded to Boston in 2004, paving the way for Justin Morneau. The power-hitting MVP manned first base until he was traded to Pittsburgh in 2013. Chris Colabello, Chris Parmelee and friends filled in at first base the rest of that season. Then, after suffering a concussion that year, Mauer moved from catcher to first base in 2014.
Morneau was limited to 150 games between 2010 and 2011 because of a concussion, and there was a stretch in 2012 when the Twins gave Parmelee a shot to stick at first. For the most part, the Twins have used three players at that position over the past 20 seasons.
But Mauer might (will?) hang them up, and Logan Morrison’s option likely won’t be picked up, creating an opening. I know what you’re thinking: Kennys Vargas finally gets his chance! OK, maybe I don’t know what you’re thinking.
Will the Twin just put Miguel Sano there? Sano who, over the weekend, accidentally backed his unlicensed truck into a police officer in the Dominican Republic and broke the officer’s leg, committed eight errors in 53 starts at third base last season. However, if Sano comes to camp in better shape, why not leave him at third? He’s shown good reflexes there and has a top shelf arm. And it’s possible that his defense will improve if he’s a little lighter.
Sano might be needed at third if the Twins decide that Tyler Austin, whom they received in the Lance Lynn trade with the Yankees, is ready to handle first base. Austin smashed 17 homers in 69 games between the Twins and Yankees. He batted .236 with nine homers and 24 RBI in 35 games with the Twins.
The question with Austin is if can hit enough to justify the huge strikeout totals he’ll likely have. Austin fanned 35 percent of the time, compared to Sano’s 38.5 percent.
Cleveland: The Indians had no problem coasting to the Central title, but their preparation for the postseason hit a wall with three quick losses to Houston. Cleveland has a manageable payroll, and their outstanding nucleus will be back next season when they’ll be overwhelming favorites for another division title. But how long will the Indians’ window be open? Was the World Series Game 7 loss to the Cubs in 2016 the furthest this group goes?
Detroit: Avoiding 100 losses in a massive rebuilding year has been credited to manager Ron Gardenhire. The Detroit Free Press gave him a “A,” saying: “Gardenhire made an immediate impact on this young team, gaining their trust early. He was not afraid to speak his mind or give positive reinforcement in a season of many losses. Talent-wise, this was a bad team that was hit with big injuries. But until Game 162, the Tigers played hard.”
Kansas City: September was the Royals’ only winning month, but they are painting their 20-14 finish (since late August) to the season as a positive. Manager Ned Yost will be back on a one-year deal and his biggest test will be getting quickly promoted prospects such as Adalberto Mondesi, Ryan O’Hearn, Hunter Dozier to take the next step.
Chicago: The White Sox lost 100 games for the first time since 1970 but, as the Chicago Tribune pointed out, there was remarkable consistency on their rebuilding roster. Eight of the nine hitters in the Opening Day lineup were the primary players at their positions (catcher Welington Castillo had an 80-game PED suspension), and three pitchers (James Shields, Reynaldo Lopez and Lucas Giolito) made 32-plus starts.
Three observations from La Velle E. Neal III …
• The Braves come to town Aug. 5-7. Ronald Acuna, Jr., folks.
• Clubs spent July and August adding bats to the lineups but good pitching still rules in the postseason. Except for Houston, which does everything well.
• I’ve covered three managers in 21 years on the Twins beat — Tom Kelly, Ron Gardenhire and Paul Molitor. Molitor last year as a player was my first year on the beat. I expect to cover a manager next season with whom I have no connections.
… and two predictions
• I’m going with a Houston-Milwaukee World Series with the Astros winning it all. Houston looks unstoppable.
• Not sure if they will succeed, but the Twins will try to re-sign Eduardo Escobar during the offseason — for his clubhouse presence as well as his bat.