“The person who least wanted to accept the decision was Joe,” Shapiro said. “He just loved being a catcher. It was a major give-up for him to have to move away from that position.”
It made sense to everyone, though, including another concussion victim: former teammate Justin Morneau, who “actually told me, ‘Joe, you need to move on. It’s just not worth it,’ ” Mauer recalled.
Finally, he said, he realized “I’m a husband and father first. ... It wasn’t a tough decision, but it was, just because I love to catch and I’ve put in so much work to become the catcher that I was.”
Now he’s got a lot more work, because even Mauer admits that until now, his approach to his new position was more as a hobby than a scholarly pursuit.
“Playing first base was kind of a day off [from] catching. I kind of went out there as, ‘Do your best, and whatever happens, happens,’ ” said Mauer, who has 54 career starts at first, though only eight last year. “Now it’s my job, and I’d better do a good job.”
The Twins have tutors lined up to help him drill down on the finer points. Paul Molitor and Rod Carew, Hall of Fame hitters who ended up at first base after years elsewhere in the infield, will be in Fort Myers for daily consultation, and Molitor joins the major league coaching staff full time this year.
And former manager and first baseman Tom Kelly has long concentrated on the first basemen in spring training, helping Morneau become a solid defensive player.
“Joe has a pretty good grasp of it; we’ve had a few sessions, and now that he can devote his full attention to it, you might be able to get into a little more [detail]. I’ve got a couple of things in mind that I’d like to pass on to him,” Kelly said. “It takes a lot of repetition, but he’s such a good athlete, he’ll be fine.’’
The goal: 150 games
Mauer said he believes he will benefit from fresher legs and fewer bruises. He’s focused on regaining lost flexibility this winter, and already notices the difference in focusing less extensively on his legs during winter workouts.
“He’s got a lot of the requisites for being a good first baseman,” Ryan said. “His [6-5] size is ideal, he’s a perfect target. He’s athletic, agile, and he’s got the instincts for it. If he had stiff hands, you’d be worried.”
Mauer’s range and glove have ranked slightly above average for the position, according to spray-chart and statistical analysis by sabermetric site Baseball Prospectus.
“His athleticism and reaction times will benefit him. He does a good job moving to his right, in particular,” BP analyst Nick Wheatley-Shaller said. “If he adapts like [Boston’s] Mike Napoli did, he’s not going to hurt you out there.”
The Twins hope Mauer can play 150 games this season, as 12 major league first basemen did in 2013, as Morneau has done four times.
“I’m excited to see how I feel in August,” when he’s normally beaten up by months of foul tips, Mauer said. “Justin said, ‘You won’t believe how much better you’ll feel.’ ”
The Twins will feel the same way if Mauer continues to compile a .400 on-base percentage, as he has done six times, and whack 30 doubles, as he’s also done a half-dozen times. But major league teams received an average of 23.8 home runs from their first basemen in 2013, a level that Mauer has reached (or even approached) only once. Mauer slugged 28 homers during his MVP season in 2009, 16 of them in the Metrodome. Considering he has hit only 10 career homers at Target Field, it’s unlikely that Mauer will provide the power that most teams crave at the position.
“That’s all right. There have been some pretty good first basemen who were doubles-type hitters. You can win with them,” Ryan said. “I don’t see Joe changing his swing, changing his strike zone, just because he’s over at first. We wouldn’t want him to.”
Ryan declined to say that this is the last position change Mauer might be asked to undertake. The GM says the All-Star is “athletic enough to play a lot of positions.’’