Veteran Clement is catching on to a new role with Twins

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 4, 2013 - 12:16 AM

Knee injuries forced Jeff Clement, once a can't-miss prospect, from catcher to first base. Now, he seeks a job with the Twins.

FORT MYERS, FLA. - In a way, it's a little odd that the Twins would sign Jeff Clement and assign him a spring-training locker four stalls away from Joe Mauer. It's not as if Clement has a contagious disease or anything, but he definitely serves as a reminder of how "sure things" occasionally can go wrong. And how much punishment the body absorbs behind the plate.

Their résumés are so similar, it's spooky. Clement and Mauer are both catchers born in the Upper Midwest in 1983. They each earned national attention for their high school exploits, and they both originally were drafted by the Twins. Mauer, the first overall pick in 2001, turned pro right away. But Clement decided to attend college, where he became so highly valued, he was chosen almost as high -- third overall by Seattle in 2005 -- as Mauer in baseball's amateur draft.

Both were projected to be future All-Stars, about as certain a payoff as a baseball team can ask for.

But while Mauer flourished almost right away, Clement took far longer. Too long, in fact -- because as he gradually began to gain confidence as a hitter, his body betrayed him.

And this is the part where Twins officials, with $138 million still owed Mauer, might want to avert their eyes.

"My [left] knee just couldn't do it anymore," Clement said of a gradual deterioration over several seasons. "I felt like I was improving as a player every year, but it all got washed out by the [three] knee surgeries. And catching was the main reason I got hurt."

A torn meniscus in 2006. Two ligaments scoped in 2008. And when the pain in his knee gradually grew worse in 2010, his surgeon used the word that pro athletes fear: microfracture.

"At that point," Clement said, "it was very clear that my everyday catching days were finished."

But not his baseball career. As his knee worsened, Clement began the transition to first base, and he's in camp this year trying to earn a backup job at the position with the Twins, the team that brought him to the Metrodome for a workout more than a decade ago before drafting him in the 12th round.

"I guess I've come full circle now," said Clement, who set a national high school record with 75 career home runs for Marshalltown, Iowa. "They drafted me a long time ago, and I'm finally here."

Question is, can he stay here? That will depend, the Twins say, on his bat. Manager Ron Gardenhire would like to beef up his bench, and the lefthanded Clement is confident he can reclaim the stroke that made him a .282 hitter with decent power in the minor leagues.

"He's putting it into play, so he's been fun to watch," Gardenhire said of Clement, whose short stints with the Mariners and Pirates produced only a .218 average and 14 homers in 152 total games. "I think he's comfortable here, and that's a good thing. He's going to be in some pinch-hit situations, he's going to come off the bench."

He'll play first base, too, which is how he became former manager Tom Kelly's star pupil.

"Since he's been in this camp, his improvement at first base alone is unbelievable, really," Gardenhire said. "He came in a little stiff, and he's been working really hard at it. TK's been doing a whopper of a job with him. He's really learned a lot in a short amount of time."

It's still an adjustment for a lifelong catcher, Clement said.

"It's like learning a whole new way to play baseball, being out in the field and having balls hit at me. But I'm definitely more comfortable at first base now than I ever have been before."

Even Kelly, a tough teacher, is impressed.

"He has a hard time, because he's a pretty thick guy. He's a catcher, and he's got to change his throwing angles and his way of moving," Kelly said. "But he tries. He's very enthusiastic, and when you get that effort, you'll improve."

Pinch hitter. Backup first baseman. It's not exactly what Clement envisioned after winning the Johnny Bench Award at Southern California. He's come to terms with his career, though.

"I don't dwell on it. Being drafted as highly as I was, I would have thought by now I would be in a different position, but I'm not," Clement said. "The bottom line is, I've still got a uniform on, and that's what's important."

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