No major sport incorporates the shrug as seamlessly as Major League Baseball.
Bad game? (Shrug.) “We get to play again tomorrow.’’ Bad month? (Shrug.) “Long season.’’
Joe Mauer has reigned as the king of ambivalent gestures, the Monarch of “Meh.” He has shrugged while performing like a Hall of Famer, while in decline and when in convalescence.
Saturday afternoon, the Twins placed Mauer on the 10-day disabled list with a cervical (neck) strain and concussion symptoms. A quarter of the way through the final season of the contract that has defined his decade, Mauer can’t even safely shrug.
The Twins played the 41st game of the season on Saturday, and Mauer, Miguel Sano, Jason Castro and Byron Buxton were missing from the lineup. Only one of the four was present at Target Field.
Sano is at Class AAA Rochester, trying to recover from a hamstring injury. Castro is done for the season with a knee injury. Buxton was given a day off to assess his latest slump. Mauer was home, at The House That Contract Built, afflicted enough that he couldn’t even make it to the ballpark.
Yogi Berra once said, “It gets late early around here.’’ He could have been describing the 2018 Twins, and the careers of the four position players missing from the lineup on Saturday.
Castro has one year remaining on his contract and has not produced at the plate. Sano has played in 23 of the Twins’ past 82 games. Buxton is batting .156 at age 24.
While Mauer has been relatively durable since 2011, the story of his career is the decline of one of the greatest catchers of all time. That transformation began in earnest in 2011, when Mauer was stricken with what former manager Ron Gardenhire incorrectly and infamously called “bilateral leg weakness.’’
Gardy’s turn of phrase fed into the popular notion that Mauer was injury-prone, even though he made the All-Star team in 2012 and 2013.
Concussion symptoms led to former General Manager Terry Ryan moving Mauer from catcher to first base full-time for the 2014 season. The move did not inspire a resurgence.
In Mauer’s first 10 seasons, he posted an OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of .780 or better in nine seasons, with 2011 being the exception.
In the five seasons since the move to first, Mauer has posted an OPS of .780 just once — last year, when he admitted to feeling more recovered from his concussions.
A bad neck and concussion symptoms, for a 35-year-old player who has suffered from concussions and back injuries and is in the final year of his contract, can be said, in this case, to be career-threatening.
This kind of ailment could ruin his season, and if his season is ruined, will the Twins want to bring him back in 2019 for a salary that Mauer could stomach? Would Mauer want to play another season if he can’t get through this one?
This could be a 10-day injury that fades from memory, or it could be the beginning of a poorly written ending for the grown-up kid from St. Paul.
Too often, the careers of premier Twins end this way.
Tony Oliva blew out his knee and was never the same, keeping him from the Hall of Fame. Kirby Puckett had lost no bat speed in the spring of 1996, when he woke up blind. Justin Morneau was playing at a career peak in 2010 when he took a knee in the head. He’d never again hit 20 home runs, and is now a 37-year-old part-time broadcaster.
Francisco Liriano blew out his elbow when the Twins were special in 2006. To visit Sano and Buxton in Fort Myers in 2014 was to see two of baseball’s best prospects playing catch together — Sano catching throws while recovering from Tommy John surgery, and Buxton throwing for him, while recovering from an injured right wrist.
Saturday, a shallow lineup lost its best technician, and a battered team was given reason to wonder whether it’s getting late early around here.