Jim Souhan: Twins can't afford more long absences

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 7, 2007 - 10:05 PM

Tonight Joe Almighty returns, allegedly hale, supposedly hearty and presumably eager to resume one of the least dignified positions in sports, one requiring a proximity to foul tips and the fresh, minty breath of the home plate arbiter du jour.

Joe Mauer, St. Paul scion and postpubescent All-Star, will, barring third or fourth thoughts, resume the armored squat tonight. But for how long? Until his thigh moans? Until his knee yelps? Or until he retires as one of the greatest catchers ever to assume the position?

What is at stake here is not just the Twins' season, but the status and legacy of one of the most promising athletes to weather a Minnesota winter.

If he stays at catcher, where he is a dominant presence, Mauer could retire as the greatest pure hitter to ever to play what may be baseball's most demanding position, perhaps even as one of the greatest all-around catchers in history.

He, along with contemporary Pudge Rodriguez, may wield the best combination of bat and arm since Johnny Bench (if you like power) or Mickey Cochrane (if you like batting average.)

This is the Twins' conundrum: Mauer is more valuable as a catcher than as a third baseman or left fielder, but is more valuable as a healthy third baseman or left fielder than a hobbled or reticent catcher.

What to do?

As every smart baseball man from Andy MacPhail to Tom Kelly to Wayne Haddaway has ever told me, the player will let you know. Tonight, Mauer returns from the monthlong convalescence of a bruised thigh to make the argument that he should remain in his natural position. If he misses any more time with leg injuries, it is an argument he may lose.

In the last two weeks, Twins officials for the first time tentatively acknowledged that Mauer may need to change positions if he can't prove more durable as a catcher. Moving him would rob the Twins of one of the competitive advantages that helped them to 96 victories last year -- having a catcher who shuts down running games and has a higher career batting average than any Hall of Famer at his position who played in the sanctioned major leagues. (Some historians say Josh Gibson hit .351 in the Negro Leagues, facing the likes of the great Satchel Paige.)

Mauer's career average is .323. Cochrane hit .320 for his career. Only three other Hall of Fame catchers who played in the sanctioned major leagues hit .300 for their career -- Bill Dickey (.313), Ernie Lombardi (.306) and Buck Ewing (.303).

The way the Twins are currently constituted, moving Mauer makes sense. He could play third or left, bolster a weakness, and allow Mike Redmond to continue his fine work behind the plate.

For the long haul, moving Mauer would create a weakness. Redmond isn't likely to thrive playing 130 games a year, and catching is an organizational weakness. It's easier to find or develop a good-hitting left fielder than an All-Star caliber catcher.

Play him facing home plate, and Mauer might prolong his career, perhaps even increase his offensive potential. Last year, Mauer hit .450 as a designated hitter and .333 as a catcher.

Many fans have been clamoring for Mauer to shift from catcher since his first knee injury, which occurred in his first series in the big leagues.

A more reasonable approach: For the rest of the season, health willing, play Mauer at catcher four games a week, and use him as a DH the rest of the time. Redmond can handle two or three games a week at catcher, and he has outhit most of the Piranhas this season, so his presence near the bottom of the order is welcome.

The Twins should proceed with that plan ... until and unless Mauer is sidelined by another leg injury of the "nagging" variety. If this is going to become a trend -- losing a month for any injury not requiring surgery -- Mauer will have to move.

Which wouldn't be a tragedy. Instead of becoming the next Mickey Cochrane or Bill Dickey, Mauer would have to settle for being the next Rod Carew, Wade Boggs or Tony Gwynn. There are worse fates.

For now, play Mauer a few times a week at catcher, bat him second in the order, and if he complains of a sore ankle, put him at DH. He might hit .450 again.

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