FORT MYERS, FLA. – Joe Mauer felt out of his element, arriving at spring training to a clubhouse stall without a catcher’s mask, shin guards and chest protector to slip on.
Mauer is in his 13th major league camp — 13th! — but his first camp solely as a first baseman. The tools of ignorance are banished to a souvenir room as Mauer prepares to toil under the hot Florida sun at a position that’s supposed to keep him in the lineup more often and prolong his career until his bushy sideburns finally turn gray.
“It’s been different,” he said Tuesday. “I think it’ll hit me more Saturday. Is it Saturday? I don’t even know.”
That was another giveaway. He’s used to being on hand for the first pitchers and catchers workout. He indicated earlier in the offseason that he would not report until the position players are due Friday. But he showed up on Monday declaring, “baseball is in the air,” and took part in informal workouts. On Tuesday, he met with the media to talk about The Great Transition.
“It’s new to me,” he said. “The first workouts I think will be a little different. I’m still working out but it’s definitely a little weird not being in catchers’ meetings and things like that. So it’s good.”
It’s supposed to be. While the health component is the most important factor — he was limited to 113 games last year because of a severe concussion — the thinking is that Mauer on the field more will lead to more Twins offense. The only time he should head into the trainer’s room is for cold medicine and energy drinks.
“I think 20 more games playing that position I think my numbers will be better,” said Mauer, who played a career-high 147 games in 2012.” But I think it’s a lot of unknowns, what is going to happen. You guys are asking me questions and I don’t know. I’m not going to try to be anything I’m not. I’m going to go out there and just try to have good at-bats and play the game like I always have. It will just be at a different position.”
Mauer’s playing time has been one of the hot-button issues throughout his career, which happens when terms such as sacroiliac joints and bilateral leg weakness get attached to one’s name. What will be interesting in 2014 is how close Mauer will be to an everyday player in a sport in which playing 162 games doesn’t happen often. Prince Fielder, Billy Butler, Joey Votto and Hunter Pence were the only players to appear in 162 games last season.
What about Mauer in 2014?
“Like I said, I’ve never played first base fulltime,” he said. “That’s been my goal as a catcher. I’ll be out there every day that I can, and I’m looking forward to being out there more.”
Mauer feels he’s “scratching the surface,” as a first baseman. He’s played 56 games at that position but has a 10.16 range factor. That would have put him third in baseball last season — just in front of Justin Morneau.
Still, Mauer feels he can get better, and will take the position even more seriously than he has. Former manager Tom Kelly, who played first base, will be around if Mauer wants to learn the finer points of playing the position.
“It’s not how much TK wants to, it’s how much Joe wants to do it,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “T.K. will be there every day. He’s as good as they get around the bag and teaching the footwork and everything. That’s his passion. That’s what TK has always done. Joe’s already had a sampling of it. If Joe wants more, T.K. will give him more.”
And it sounds as if Mauer will ask for more.
“In the past, it was kind of a day off from catching and just go out there and do your best,” Mauer said, “but now it’s my job. But learning the little things of footwork and mechanics and how to make things easier for me, I’m looking forward to learning things like that.”