Souhan: Twins need an everyday Joe in lineup

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 17, 2014 - 7:43 AM

Joe Mauer's move to first base should keep him healthier and enhance his offensive production for the Twins.

Photo: Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press file

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Sunday marked reporting day for Twins spring training, the day before pitchers and catchers begin officially easing into their routines as opposed to casually easing into their routines.

So Sunday was the calm before the calm, befitting a career-changing day for the calmest of athletes.

Today, pitchers and catchers report. Joe Mauer will not be required to show up. Whenever he does, he will for the first time take the field as a former catcher.

The position change will alter Mauer’s career, and the perception of his career, and his perceived value, and what has been, to date, a Hall of Fame résumé.

What should change most are Ron Gardenhire’s afternoons. When the Twins manager felt responsible for a franchise catcher with a history of worrisome and sometimes mysterious ailments, he would wait to see how Mauer felt each afternoon before writing out a lineup. ‘‘I’ll check with Joe,’’ became a refrain.

As a manager responsible for a 30-year-old star in his prime with no obvious ailments other than the lingering effects of concussions that forced the move to first base, Gardenhire’s refrain should change. Every day, he should write down a lineup before he sees Mauer, then tell everyone, ‘‘Joe’s in.’’

As a catcher, Mauer proved durable enough during most seasons. As a rookie, a knee injury limited him to 35 games. In 2011, the incorrectly termed ‘‘bilateral leg weakness’’ limited him to 82 games. In 2007 and 2013, other ailments made him more of a question mark than a fixture on the lineup card.

In 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012 he played anywhere from 131 to 147 games, a reasonable workload for a catcher carrying 230 pounds and responsible for offensive production.

Now that he is a first baseman, the Twins should view his job differently, and so should he. As a gifted athlete who will easily adapt to first base, and who will enjoy fresher legs and a shorter to-do list every day, Mauer should challenge himself.

He should ask to play in 162 games. Only a serious injury should keep him from that goal.

If Mauer needs a day to ‘‘get off his feet,’’ as the saying goes in the big leagues, he can serve as the designated hitter.

Mauer is making $23 million a year. Until Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano realize their promise in the majors, Mauer will continue to easily be the Twins’ best player.

Now that his value will not be determined by him being one of the best-hitting catchers in baseball history, his value will be determined almost exclusively by his offensive production.

The last time Mauer played baseball with fresh legs was at the beginning of the 2009 season. Injuries kept him from catching in spring training, and when he joined the team May 1, he was as healthy and well-rested as he ever could be for his first at-bat of the season, and that’s the season he hit a career-high 28 home runs and won the American League MVP award.

The dimensions of Target Field would have turned many of his 2009 home runs into doubles or long outs, but in 2014, with legs unmarked by shinguards and foul tips, he should enjoy another peak season.

Last year, Mauer played 75 games as a catcher and 37 as a first baseman or DH. Given frequent chances to rest his legs, he produced his highest slugging percentage since his MVP season, and the third highest of his career, counting seasons in which he played at least 100 games.

If Mauer has any doubts about playing 162 games, he can call his friend Justin Morneau. In his prime, Morneau prided himself on taking the field every day. In 2006 and 2007, he played in 157 games. In 2008, he played in 163, including the one-game playoff to determine the division championship against the White Sox.

Mauer is the de facto leader of a desperate franchise. He will never rattle the lockers with an inspirational speech, nor does he need to. He can lead, and earn his keep, by playing every day.

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