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Jim Souhan: Mauer to third? Move would save legs and dollars

  • Article by: Jim Souhan
  • Star Tribune
  • September 3, 2007 - 12:13 PM

With two of their most important players, the Twins face questions to which there might be no palatable answers.

They don't want to pay center fielder Torii Hunter the $80-90 million over five years that it might take to sign him, yet they can't afford to let him leave because they would score less than Manchester United without him, and they have no replacement.

The Twins can't afford to pay lefthander Johan Santana the $110 million (or more) over five years it might take to sign him, yet they can't afford to let Santana and Hunter leave while they prepare to enter the new ballpark that was supposed to allow them to keep their best players.

Hunter and Santana are Twins conundrums. There is one cornerstone player in their employ, though, who presents a problem that can be easily solved.

Joe Mauer can be moved from catcher, where he has too often been waylaid because of leg injuries, to third base, where he would solve a major Twins problem and, if history is any indication, become a more productive hitter.

This is baseball blasphemy, of course. Mauer became the first American League catcher to win the batting title last year, and did so while becoming a force behind the plate. If he had continued to play at that level, he would be headed for the Hall of Fame.

It is time to take the blinders off and look analytically at Mauer's career. He has been in the big leagues for four years. He has been healthy and outstanding for only one of them.

In 2004, Mauer hurt his knee during the first series and was limited to 107 at-bats. In 2005, he produced 55 RBI in 489 at-bats, and during the middle of the season manager Ron Gardenhire, bench coach Rick Stelmaszek and Hunter publicly urged him to become more willing to fight through nagging injuries.

In 2006, Mauer might have been the best catcher in baseball.

In 2007, Mauer — like the Twins — revisited 2005. In spring training he caused a scare with what was termed a "stress reaction." I've spoken with trainers in other sports who have told me there is no such thing.

Early in the season, Mauer missed a month because of a strained quadriceps muscle. While Mauer was out, Hunter pointedly said some players can't play when they're not 100 percent.

Now Mauer has missed eight games — including the three losses in Cleveland that sealed the Twins' fate this season -- because of a pulled hamstring, and he might not be back for another week.

This season, Mauer is hitting .294 with 53 RBI in 360 at-bats. He has grown to 6-5, making him much taller than your prototypical catcher. He remains an excellent defensive player, but those long legs do not seem capable of extended periods of squatting.

While Mauer has struggled and convalesced, his backup, Mike Redmond, has played with what seems to be a broken finger and myriad bruises. When offered a chance to X-ray the finger, Redmond declined, saying he's going to play whether it's broken or not. Redmond also said he does not need to be "100 percent" to play.

Mauer's reputation in the clubhouse has taken a hit while Redmond, Hunter, Michael Cuddyer, Justin Morneau, Jason Bartlett and Nick Punto, among others, have played through injuries and Mauer has eased and iced his way back into the lineup.

Maybe the answer is to make Mauer a third baseman, plugging a gaping organizational hole and taking a load off Mauer's legs.

It would be easier and cheaper to find a catcher to share time with Redmond than to sign an everyday third baseman, and Redmond is hitting and producing runs about as well as Mauer this year, anyway.

Standing at third base has got to be easier on the legs than catching. Mike Sweeney, Phil Nevin, Craig Biggio and Todd Zeile all hit far better after switching from catcher, and Dale Murphy became a perennial MVP candidate after making the move.

Mauer's career average as a catcher is .312; his career average at DH is .343. It's time to find out what he would hit as a third baseman. It's time for the one cornerstone player the Twins have signed beyond 2008 to become an everyday player again.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. jsouhan@startribune.com

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