Likely Starter: Joe Mauer
2012 Stats: .319/.444/.587, 10 HR, 85 RBI, 81 R
Potential Backups: Ryan Doumit, Drew Butera, Chris Herrmann
Joe Mauer wasn't officially honored as the American League's Comeback Player of the Year last season, losing out to Fernando Rodney, but he had an awfully good case. His 2011 campaign was as tumultuous as that of any player in baseball, seeing him descend from idol to villain in the eyes of a fan base frustrated by vague injuries, disappointing on-field performance and lacking accountability. Magnifying all these issues were the backdrops of a disastrous season for the club and a massive contract that was just getting underway.
In 2012, Mauer put it all behind him.
Some worried that the seeds of trouble sprouting in that '11 season would blossom into long-term limitations but last year it was like none of that stuff had ever happened. Mauer looked like his old self, spraying line drives all over the field and competing for a batting title down to the final days of the season. Rejuvenated, he posted the third-highest home run total of his career. As if to prove a point about the condition of his legs, he attempted 12 stolen bases -- as many as the previous four years combined -- and set a career high for games played with 147.
The one thing that changed, relative to past successful seasons, was a dramatic reduction in his workload at catcher. Behind the plate for 83 percent of his starts in 2010, Mauer saw that number drop to 50 percent as his playing time at DH and first base shot up.
This approach made sense for two principal reasons: first, caution with his battered legs was clearly warranted; second, moving Mauer out from behind the plate didn’t hurt the lineup the way it has in the past due to the presence of an offensive asset as the backup.
Ryan Doumit looked like a great fit when the Twins signed him to a one-year deal prior to the 2012 season, and he worked out so well that the club extended his contract for two years in the middle of the summer. He’ll be back to help ease Mauer’s workload, while both players can periodically fill in elsewhere.
With those two locked in, the question is whether a third backstop will accompany them on the roster. That has largely been assumed, since Drew Butera has held down a spot three years running and re-signed for $700,000 during the offseason, but Ron Gardenhire has hinted that he’s ready to snap his long-standing trend and carry two catchers in favor of a more potent bench.
Without Butera weighing the position down, the Twins could realistically boast the best offensive output of any team in the league at catcher, especially if the prime-aged Mauer takes another step forward with 2011 shrinking in the rearview mirror.