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Continued: Part 1: What went wrong so quickly? Plenty, starting with Mauer

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Last update: June 8, 2011 - 6:14 AM

KANSAS CITY, MO. - A baseball franchise doesn't nosedive like the Twins have this year because one thing goes wrong.

To drop this suddenly -- from six division titles in nine seasons to a team fighting to avoid 100 losses -- the Twins have experienced failure at all levels of the organization, from the players, to manager Ron Gardenhire and his coaches, to the team's medical staff, to General Manager Bill Smith and his advisers, to the scouting and player development departments.

Injuries and a tough early-season schedule, thick with road games, have been factors, as Smith noted this week, but those don't fully explain a nosedive this drastic. The Star Tribune starts a four-part series analyzing reasons for the dramatic and unforeseen collapse of the Twins.

Joe Mauer hasn't been the only one injured. He is one of 11 players from the Opening Day roster who have landed on the disabled list.

But in the first year of his eight-year, $184 million contract, Mauer hovers over everything the Twins do, even when he's not on the field. Make that especially when he's not on the field.

The ongoing mystery surrounding his prolonged absence -- he is said to be suffering from bilateral leg weakness, a viral infection and a right shoulder problem -- is turning into a public relations nightmare for the team, and for Mauer himself. The hometown hero with three batting titles to his credit has been criticized harshly by fans on Internet chat sites and talk radio. Even some people within the organization have responded with an eye roll when talking about Mauer's slow progress.

Mauer and the Twins have insisted they aren't hiding a more serious condition, but the longer he's out, the more doubts arise. The $23 million salary Mauer is drawing this season, coupled with the team's woeful record, is adding to the unrest.

His new deal, signed in March 2010, when he was coming off an MVP season and sitting seven months from potential free agency, will affect every financial decision the team makes through 2018.

Though the Twins stretched their payroll to $113 million this year, more than one-fifth of that goes to Mauer, whose salary is the fourth-highest in baseball. Throw in Justin Morneau, Joe Nathan, Michael Cuddyer, Carl Pavano and Matt Capps, and the Twins are paying about $75 million for six players.

That has created a roster that might be described as stars and scrubs. If the Twins were to repeat as division champs, they needed to either stay healthy or have their minor league reinforcements perform as they have in recent seasons.

But in 2011, the promotions have provided ample evidence why the top two farm clubs -- Class AAA Rochester and Class AA New Britain -- were a combined 93-193 last season.

That money tied up in Mauer and the five other highest-paid players severely limits what the Twins can do with the rest of their roster. At no position is that more evident than catcher, where they entered the year with Mauer and his .327 career batting average, and Drew Butera, with his .197 career average.

No safety net

For years, Smith and his GM predecessor, Terry Ryan, had been criticized for not pushing the envelope with midseason trades. Last July, Smith went all in, trading one of baseball's top catching prospects, Wilson Ramos, to the Washington Nationals for Capps, an All-Star closer.

While Nathan was out for the season with an elbow injury, Jon Rauch had done an admirable job at closer, but the Twins had visions of a deep October playoff run and wanted someone more fail-safe than Rauch.

"Unfortunately we did not play well in the playoffs, but it's a risk we had to take at that time," Smith said.

Capps did exactly what the Twins wanted, converting 16 of 18 save opportunities with a 2.00 ERA down the stretch. But he didn't even get a save opportunity in the playoffs, as the Yankees swept the Twins in three games.

"We wouldn't have made the deal if we didn't have Capps coming back for this season," Smith said, and the Twins have needed a closer, with Nathan battling the effects of Tommy John surgery.

This year, Ramos has been an impressive rookie for the Nationals, if not a star. He is batting .242 with three homers and 14 RBI. After playing Washington last month, Orioles manager Buck Showalter told reporters: "I love that Ramos kid. That's about as good a young player as I've seen this year. The kid they got from Minnesota. He's really impressive."

Ramos would have looked nice filling in for Mauer the past seven weeks, and the Twins traded away another option in Jose Morales.

Considered a below-average defensive catcher, the switch-hitting Morales batted .311 over 54 games in 2010 but only .194 last year. He was out of minor league options, and the Twins didn't think he would make their team out of spring training.

The Twins traded Morales to the Rockies in December for minor league pitcher Paul Bargas. Morales has served as Colorado's backup catcher behind Chris Ianetta and is batting .217 in 18 games. Sadly, Bargas has developed brain cancer and is being treated at the UCLA medical center.

With no other impressive catching prospects above Class A, the Twins signed six-year minor league free agents Steve Holm and Rene Rivera to provide depth at Class AAA Rochester.

But with Mauer batting .235 in nine games, the Twins have been stuck with Butera (.140), Holm (.118) and Rivera (.227). Entering Friday, Twins catchers combined to bat an MLB-worst .173 with a .478 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS).

"Obviously, we didn't have a lot of offense to replace Joe Mauer behind the plate," Smith said. "We need him back. He's a critical part of this ballclub. It's important we get him back and get him healthy and get him back in our lineup, for the short term and the long term."

Haphazard rehab plan

The Twins knew Mauer's durability was a major question. Late last season, he injured his left knee, the same one he had surgically repaired as a rookie in 2004. He saw several doctors and finally had another arthroscopic surgery on the knee in mid-December.

By late January, Mauer was talking about taking things slow in spring training and how the goal was to be ready for the April 1 opener. But in mid-March, he sped up the timetable.

"I might not have been totally honest with myself and just trying to suck it up and play," Mauer said.

Knowing the expectations that came with his giant new contract, the four-time All-Star pushed himself to be ready, and the Twins didn't step in and slow him down.

"He was swinging as good as anybody on our team at the end of spring training, and he was healthy, feeling great, better than he's ever felt," Gardenhire said. "That's really hard for a manager or anybody else to say we're going to DL him. It just doesn't make sense.

"In hindsight, if we would have known that after two weeks he was going to be sore, all over, maybe we should have done this, I'd say that's kind of ridiculous really."

On April 14, the Twins placed Mauer on the DL, saying he had "bilateral leg weakness." His return has been delayed as he recovers from leg weakness, a right shoulder injury and a viral infection that caused him to lose 10-15 pounds.

The Twins are now hoping Mauer can return in mid-June, but it already appears too late to salvage this team's once buoyant playoff hopes.

If the rest of the roster were relatively healthy, if several others weren't producing well below expectations, the loss of Mauer might not look as glaring. But he's the most important piece of this big, complicated puzzle.

  • related content

  • Twins' history lessons

    Wednesday June 8, 2011

    The Twins have won six division titles in the past nine seasons, and in three of those championship runs they made up at least a seven-game deficit after mid-July:

  • Twins' declining averages

    Wednesday June 8, 2011

    Some are coming off injuries, others have battled new injuries, some have been fully healthy, but many have underachieved this year by their own standards:

  • These days there seems to be as much speculation about the talented but often injured Joe Mauer as there is adoration for him.

  • ABOUT THIS SERIES

    The four-part series that starts Sunday will examine how the Twins have gone from a team that won six division titles in nine seasons to one that is on pace to lose 100 games. The lineup:

    Sunday: Joe Mauer's nagging injuries and his $23 million annual salary.

    Monday: The failed blueprint for the bullpen.

    Tuesday: The mess in the middle of the infield.

    Wednesday: Disappearance of the "Twins Way."

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Miami - LP: N. Eovaldi 1
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Boston - WP: J. Kelly 3 FINAL
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LA Angels - LP: H. Street 1
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San Diego - WP: I. Kennedy 8
Arizona - LP: W. Miley 3 FINAL
Colorado - WP: C. Bergman 8
Cincinnati - WP: A. Simon 7 FINAL
St. Louis - LP: L. Lynn 2
San Diego 22 FINAL
Buffalo 10
Dallas 34 FINAL
St. Louis 31
Washington 34 FINAL
Philadelphia 37
Houston 17 FINAL
NY Giants 30
Minnesota 9 FINAL
New Orleans 20
Tennessee 7 FINAL
Cincinnati 33
Baltimore 23 FINAL
Cleveland 21
Green Bay 7 FINAL
Detroit 19
Indianapolis 44 FINAL
Jacksonville 17
Oakland 9 FINAL
New England 16
San Francisco 14 FINAL
Arizona 23
Denver 20 FINAL
Seattle 26
Kansas City 34 FINAL
Miami 15
Pittsburgh 30 4th Qtr 6:41
Carolina 13
Chicago 9/22/14 7:30 PM
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Washington
Columbus 4 FINAL
Carolina 3
Buffalo 0 FINAL
Washington 1
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Rice 42
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(12) Georgia 66
Georgia Tech 27 FINAL
Virginia Tech 24
Eastern Mich 14 FINAL
(9) Michigan State 73
Iowa 24 FINAL
Pittsburgh 20
Bowling Green 17 FINAL
(19) Wisconsin 68
Maryland 34 FINAL
Syracuse 20
Tulane 13 FINAL
Duke 47
Hawaii 12 FINAL
Colorado 21
Marshall 48 FINAL
Akron 17
North Carolina 41 FINAL
(23) East Carolina 70
Army 21 FINAL
Wake Forest 24
Virginia 33 FINAL
(20) BYU 41
(6) Texas A&M 58 FINAL
SMU 6
Rutgers 31 FINAL
Navy 24
Central Mich 10 FINAL
Kansas 24
Utah 26 FINAL
Michigan 10
Florida 21 FINAL
(3) Alabama 42
Louisville 34 FINAL
FIU 3
Fla Atlantic 19 FINAL
Wyoming 20
Indiana 31 FINAL
Missouri 27
San Jose St 7 FINAL
Minnesota 24
Texas State 35 FINAL
Illinois 42
Massachusetts 7 FINAL
Penn State 48
Georgia State 14 FINAL
Washington 45
Appalachian St 20 FINAL
Southern Miss 21
(14) Miss State 34 FINAL
(17) LSU 29
Northern Ill 14 FINAL
Arkansas 52
Middle Tennessee 17 FINAL
Memphis 36
Utah State 14 FINAL
Arkansas State 21
Miami-Ohio 24 FINAL
Cincinnati 31
Idaho 24 FINAL
Ohio U 36
Ball State 23 FINAL
Toledo 34
(13) So Carolina 48 FINAL
Vanderbilt 34
(4) Oklahoma 45 FINAL
West Virginia 33
Ga Southern 28 FINAL
South Alabama 6
UNLV 14 FINAL
Houston 47
Miami-Florida 31 FINAL
(21) Nebraska 41
New Mexico 38 FINAL
New Mexico St 35
Clemson 17 FINAL
(1) Florida State 23
California 45 FINAL
Arizona 49
San Diego St 7 FINAL
Oregon State 28
(2) Oregon 38 FINAL
Washington St 31
Louisiana 9 FINAL
Boise State 34
Texas Tech 9/25/14 6:30 PM
(24) Oklahoma State
Appalachian St 9/25/14 6:30 PM
Ga Southern
(11) UCLA 9/25/14 9:00 PM
(15) Arizona State
Middle Tennessee 9/26/14 7:00 PM
Old Dominion
Fresno State 9/26/14 7:00 PM
New Mexico
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(25) Kansas State
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(12) Georgia
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Kentucky
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(9) Michigan State
Northwestern 9/27/14 11:00 AM
Penn State
TCU 9/27/14 11:00 AM
SMU
Iowa 9/27/14 11:00 AM
Purdue
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Rutgers
So Florida 9/27/14 11:00 AM
(19) Wisconsin
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Boston College
Western Mich 9/27/14 11:30 AM
Virginia Tech
Maryland 9/27/14 12:30 PM
Indiana
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Pittsburgh
Bowling Green 9/27/14 2:00 PM
Massachusetts
Arkansas 9/27/14 2:30 PM
(6) Texas A&M
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Virginia
Western Ky 9/27/14 2:30 PM
Navy
Minnesota 9/27/14 2:30 PM
Michigan
Wake Forest 9/27/14 2:30 PM
Louisville
FIU 9/27/14 2:30 PM
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NC State
Miami-Ohio 9/27/14 2:30 PM
Buffalo
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California
Louisiana Tech 9/27/14 3:00 PM
(5) Auburn
Texas 9/27/14 3:00 PM
Kansas
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Connecticut
(16) Stanford 9/27/14 3:15 PM
Washington
TX-San Antonio 9/27/14 4:00 PM
Fla Atlantic
South Alabama 9/27/14 4:00 PM
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(13) So Carolina
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Air Force
North Carolina 9/27/14 6:00 PM
Clemson
Central Mich 9/27/14 6:00 PM
Toledo
Troy 9/27/14 6:00 PM
ULM
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(17) LSU
Memphis 9/27/14 6:30 PM
(10) Ole Miss
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Miami-Florida
Texas State 9/27/14 7:00 PM
Tulsa
Washington St 9/27/14 7:00 PM
Utah
(8) Notre Dame 9/27/14 7:00 PM
Syracuse
(7) Baylor 9/27/14 7:00 PM
Iowa State
UNLV 9/27/14 7:00 PM
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Illinois 9/27/14 8:00 PM
(21) Nebraska
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(18) USC
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Hamilton 25
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Montreal 31
Ottawa 32 FINAL
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