Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer command nearly 40 percent of the Twins' payroll, but injuries have limited their production.
The Twins' franchise players occupy the expansive corner lockers in the home clubhouse at Target Field. Joe Mauer's is as uncluttered as his swing. Justin Morneau's is stuffed with hockey jerseys, an homage to his first sporting love.
When it comes to such prime downtown real estate, location is everything, so it is not surprising that Mauer and Morneau, aka the "M&M Boys," are the Twins closest to the training room. In the prime of their careers, the longtime friends have become symbols of athletic fragility and franchise decline.
Where once Mauer looked like a Hall of Fame catcher and Morneau the model for a Target Field statue, they now concern themselves with such mundane goals as "staying on the field." Their reduced production has nastily dovetailed with rising salaries and the opening of a new ballpark, turning what just a couple of years ago ranked as one of baseball's sweetest stories into a cautionary tale concerning long-term contracts.
"It's been frustrating, for the both of us," Mauer said. "Obviously, last season was real frustrating. Justin has had a lot of things happen to him and he's missed the last couple of playoffs, and that's been eating at him.
"There's nothing more that we want to do than play baseball, and injuries have taken that away from us. It's been tough."
In 2008, 2009 and 2010, Mauer and Morneau played together in All-Star Games. In 2006, Morneau was named American League MVP; Mauer would win the award three years later, and he's captured the only three American League batting titles ever won by a catcher (2006, 2008, 2009).
They used to ride to the Metrodome together and tell jokes that only they understood. Now they dabble with position changes in an attempt to remain healthy, and post numbers unworthy of their reputations.
While Mauer has slogged through leg injuries and soreness and Morneau has tried to escape the clouds of post-concussion symptoms and a variety of less-ominous injuries, their team lost 99 games in 2011 and is now 14-27.
Their salaries consume almost 40 percent of the team's payroll, and their struggles dampen what was once a winning clubhouse.
"People deal with injuries and adversity," Morneau told the Star Tribune's La Velle E. Neal III. "It is part of the game. Cal Ripken probably was the only guy who never got hurt. Not that I would ever compare myself to Harmon Killebrew, but Harmon had a few years with injuries and he was one of the best Twins who ever played. Joe has a chance to be right up in that category.
"Everything is so focused on now. There's so much more attention to everything and everything is so instant. When he's done playing and it is all said and done, you'll look at the bulk of the career and look at it as a blip on the radar ...
"For myself, I don't know. He's signed here a lot longer than I am, but if there's anything I could change I would. I got hurt playing the game and I can't change that. When you can look at yourself in the mirror and say, 'I've done everything I possibly have to be out on the field,' then there's not much else you can do."
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From 2006 through Morneau's head injury in July 2010, Mauer and Morneau might have been the pair of players most identified with their franchise, and yet they have never been in the same lineup for a playoff victory. They have appeared in one playoff series together, when the Twins were swept by Oakland in the 2006 Divisional Series. They have combined to hit seven home runs over two-plus seasons at Target Field.
In 2008, Morneau played in 163 regular-season games, including a one-game playoff, while Mauer played in 146, an immense number for an offensive-minded catcher. In 2009, Morneau played in 135 games, Mauer in 138.
In four combined full seasons since then, only once has one of them played in more than 100 games. Morneau's games played totals have declined in each of the past three years, bottoming out at 69 last season.
While Mauer has received more criticism because of the mysterious nature of the injuries that sidelined him in 2011, he has played in more games than Morneau in each of the past four seasons, including 2012.
"With those guys, Morny and Mauer, it's not for a lack of effort," Twins pitcher Glen Perkins said. "They've handled all of this pretty well. Morny is a little more fed up. At least Joe has been able to stay on the field this season. With Morny, his work ethic is second to none. I think it is wearing on him. But everybody in this game deals with stuff. Hopefully, he'll come out of it and be stronger for it in the end."
Mauer took advantage of serendipitous timing to sign a franchise-record eight-year, $184 million contract. He won his MVP in 2009, as the Twins were preparing to move into Target Field. He hit 28 homers that season. He has hit 13 since.
Now he's a part-time catcher who lacks power, more John Jaso than Johnny Bench.
"With Morny, it's a wait-and-see deal," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "These are serious injuries he's dealt with. With Joe, he's getting better and his swing is getting better and better. Justin is going to have to work through the pain in his wrist to see if he can even swing the same way. Is this going to be one of those things that stays with him for a long time, or is he going to be able to get past it?
"They tell me he's going to be fine. Will he get back to MVP status? I don't know. I don't think he's going to play a lot of first base, at least this year. He still has the swing and the strength; now it's all health.
"With Joe, he's got too good a swing not to bounce back. He swung so much without his legs last year that he's still learning to use them again."
Terry Ryan, back as Twins general manager this season, ran the team when the Twins drafted Mauer and Morneau, but not when they were signed to their current contracts. He will be charged with building a team around them, or building a team despite them.
"I'm not worried," he said. "With all that's happened, Joe's healthy, and I'm assuming Justin is going to be fine. They're both in the prime of their careers. I suspect they will be the face of the franchise for a long time to come.
"I don't doubt you'll see them bounce back here in short order. They're too good, and too healthy, and too young not to."
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org
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