FORT MYERS. FLA.There was Joe Mauer on Monday, with all his equipment on, catching righthander Trevor May on the first day of live batting practice. What a difference a year makes.
In 2012, the Twins slowly eased Mauer into catching during spring training because he was coming off of an injury-plagued season during which he was criticized for being unable to stay on the field. Now Mauer, who will turn 30 one month from now and should be in his peak production years, is telling everyone how good he feels. And how he wants more time behind the plate.
"You have to remember that in 2011 I had offseason knee surgery and was kind of behind the 8-ball then," Mauer said following Monday's workout.
"This is the best I've felt in a couple years coming into camp. I'm trying to get my legs underneath me and get ready to catch."
Mauer split time between catcher (72 games), first base (30) and designated hitter (42) last season but expects to catch as many games as his body allows in 2013 to help the Twins put their most dangerous lineup on the field. A second consecutive offseason, during which he was able to work on his conditioning instead of rehabbing some sort of injury, has helped significantly.
Mauer reaching 100 games caught, or more, is not out of the question. That means that Justin Morneau, who began last season as the designated hitter as he returned from concussion symptoms and other injuries, will be a fixture at first base and Ryan Doumit will spend most his time at designated hitter.
"I liked how it worked out last year, and I think he did too," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said of Mauer. "But I also know that Joe likes to catch. More than anything else, we had a unique situation with Mourny last year where I wanted to give Mourny some more DH days and give Joe the opportunity to play first base and DH and not kill him behind the plate.
"But the season is going to dictate how we do that. I do know this: We have to keep him in the lineup, and whatever it takes to keep him in our lineup that is what we are going to do."
Mauer, last Tuesday, sprinkled the outfield with line drive after line drive during batting practice, then suddenly turned on one pitch and sent it well over the right field fence.
"I guess I picked the right field to hit on," he joked. "The wind was blowing out."
Mauer batted .319 last season and was in the race for the American League batting title -- which would have been his fourth -- until the final weekend of the season. He led the league with a .416 on-base percentage. He batted .372 with runners in scoring position. With runners in scoring position and two outs, he batted a robust .397 with a 1.090 OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage). If Mauer is on the field more, more good things can happen for the Twins. And he set career highs in games played (147) and plate appearances (641) last year.
"You know the offensive potential. You heard about how he approaches an at-bat and how such a professional hitter he is and how he doesn't waver from his plan a lot, even if a pitcher gets him out a couple of times," said Twins left fielder Josh Willingham, who can attribute many of his career-high 110 RBI last season to Mauer batting in front of him. "Just see the professionalism of the way he approaches at-bats on a daily basis was pretty cool. Obviously, he can flat-out hit."
Mauer, Willingham and Morneau potentially give the Twins a dangerous middle order. But Mauer sees Doumit, Chris Parmelee and Trevor Plouffe as more reasons to like the Twins offense.
If Mauer can increase his workload behind the plate, there will be room for everyone to fit in the lineup. The only thing they will miss is a bona fide leadoff hitter after both Denard Span and Ben Revere were traded this offseason.
"I'm aware of how this team could shape up if I'm definitely able to do what I signed up here for, which was to catch," Mauer said. "We have Doumit, which is another bonus. When he gets behind there, he's another guy who can swing the bat and handle the staff. However it shakes out, I think we have a pretty good thing going.
"It will be a little different at the top of the order, but we have some guys who can swing the bats and drive in runs."