Souhan: Healthier Mauer could enhance his production

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 12, 2013 - 9:44 AM

The move to first base shouldn't be considered a negative for either the former catcher or the Twins.

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The days of Joe Mauer as a catcher are over.

Photo: Andy Clayton-King, Associated Press

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Joe Mauer had a chance to become the next Mickey Cochrane, a great-hitting Hall of Fame catcher.

Now he has a chance to be the next Rod Carew, a Hall of Fame hitter who finished his career at first base.

This does not qualify as tragedy, for Mauer or the Twins.

This would qualify as one of the best decisions the Twins have made in years, if the decision wasn’t so obvious, and if Mauer hadn’t made it for them.

The Twins announced Monday that Mauer would shift from catcher, where he has won three batting titles, an MVP Award, five Silver Sluggers and three Gold Gloves, to first base, where he will not remind anyone of Harmon Killebrew.

No, he will hit for a higher batting average than Killebrew, reach base more often and be a far superior fielder. He won’t hit for power like Killebrew, but the stereotype of the first baseman as a chunky masher is deceptive and irrelevant.

Of the 24 players in the Hall of Fame who are identified as first basemen, only four hit 500 home runs. If Mauer plays more games while in better physical condition because of the switch to first base, he could end his career with 200 or more home runs. Of the 24 Hall of Fame first basemen, 13 hit 219 or fewer home runs.

Carew made his reputation as a spray-hitting second baseman, and moved to first base when his range declined. He won his MVP Award while playing 150 games at first base in 1977.

His career totals: A .328 batting average and an .822 OPS (slugging plus on-base percentage). Cochrane’s career totals: .320 and .897. Mauer’s current totals: .323 and .873. He is comparable to Hall of Fame catchers, and Hall of Fame first basemen, and his production should improve if he’s able to remain healthy.

As a catcher, he turned into a $184-million spa patient even before he suffered the concussions that ended his 2013 season. Once foul tips left him with the kind of symptoms that ended Corey Koskie’s career and damaged Justin Morneau’s, a move to first base was inevitable.

Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said he left the decision to Mauer. Let us hope that was Ryan being polite. The Twins would have been guilty of malpractice had they allowed Mauer behind the plate.

No one doubts his ability to become an brilliant fielder, at first base or any corner position. Blessed with fresher legs and hands, he should again contend for batting titles, and perhaps even provide more power.

“I think I’m going to be a lot more healthy,” he said. “There’s been many a time I went up to the plate with foul tips off my shoulder and legs, where I couldn’t feel my hands. It’s funny, I’ve talked to Morneau. He was a catcher way back in the day, and he said you’re going to be amazed how much better you feel.”

Mauer has demonstrated impressive home-run power in one professional season, with 28 in 2009. That was the year he missed spring training and all of April. When he began playing in games, he was not only healthy, he was fresh.

Preserving Mauer’s health and value over the course of his contract makes this the easiest decision the Twins have made since they retired Tom Kelly’s number.

Even if concussions hadn’t been an issue, this would have been the right time to move. The Twins’ alternatives at first base are worrisome. Josmil Pinto should develop into a good everyday catcher who can hit.

Within two years, the Twins’ lineup should look something like this: LF Aaron Hicks, CF Byron Buxton, 1B Joe Mauer, 3B Miguel Sano, RF Oswaldo Arcia, DH Chris Parmelee (or Josh Willingham or someone like him), 2B Eddie Rosario, C Josmil Pinto, SS Danny Santana.

That lineup will feature superstars, All-Stars, power, speed, depth — and a future Hall of Famer imitating Carew instead of Cochrane.

 

Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. jsouhan@startribune.com

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