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Joe Mauer is the Twins' most valuable asset. I'm not breaking any ground with that statement; he's the proverbial "face of the franchise" and his salary consumes roughly 20 percent of the team's total payroll.
There's no question that when he's healthy, Mauer can be one of the league's biggest difference-makers. As such, it could be argued that the single most important priority for Ron Gardenhire this year is doing everything within his power to keep his star catcher free of injury.
That's no secret to Gardy. He has always made a point of resting Mauer at regular intervals throughout the season (for instance, when the team plays a day game following a night game).
Resting Mauer carries a price, though. Now that the Twins have traded away every other catcher in their organization with any semblance of offensive ability, they're left with Drew Butera as their sole backup option at the position. While I find Butera to be a likable player and easy to root for, it's not a stretch to say he might be the worst-hitting position player in the major leagues. He hit .197/.237/.296 last season, and considering his .214/.296/.317 career line in the minors, we should expect more of the same in the future.
The idea of taking Mauer out from the catcher position every fourth game or so was more palatable when his backup was Mike Redmond, a thoroughly competent offensive player, but when you sit Mauer in favor of Butera you're replacing one of the best bats in the league with one of the worst. Shifting Mauer to DH only means that you're replacing a quality bat like Jason Kubel or Jim Thome with Butera's meager stick.
The challenge for Gardenhire will be finding the right opportunities to rest Mauer while limiting the negative impacts of increased Butera dosages. Last year, Gardy's savvy handling of this issue may have had a significant impact on the team's fortunes.
Midway through the summer, Mauer was banged up. An array of ailments was taking a toll on his performance, and frustration came to a head when the reigning MVP elected to lay down a bunt in a vital late-game situation in July.
When the All-Star break rolled around, the Twins' season was seemingly hanging in the balance. They had sunk to third place and their best player just wasn't hitting. So Gardy took the opportunity to provide Mauer with some additional rest. In the five weeks following the break, Mauer caught only 19 of the Twins' 32 games, seeing an increased mix of DH duty and full days off. During that span, the Twins went 24-8, rising from 4.5 games out in the AL Central to 5 games up -- a commanding lead they'd never relinquish. It could be said that this was the defining stretch of their season.
The team's success during this span, with Mauer catching a little over half their games, can be attributed to a few different things, some not relating to the catcher position. Butera had maybe his best offensive stretch of the season, maintaining a .757 OPS over 14 games. Incidentally, it was also a relatively soft spot in the schedule, with 19 of the 32 games coming against the Indians, Royals, Orioles, Mariners and Athletics.
Most importantly, though, Mauer responded extremely well to the increased rest, hitting .442 with a 1.185 OPS.
It was an ingenious bit of strategy from the man who would go on to win Manager of the Year. Gardenhire recognized that his star player was lagging, noticed a lull in the schedule, and responded accordingly. Over the course of a full season, Gardy will have a hard time getting away with playing Butera at catcher more than 40 percent of the time, but during stretches like that one, the opportunity is ripe to rest up and rejuvenate Mauer.
It's a formula that Gardenhire would be wise to follow again this year. Mauer certainly will need his time off, as he's still experiencing issues with his surgically repaired left knee, but his resting pattern shouldn't be as simple as "every Thursday/Sunday afternoon and whenever Carl Pavano is pitching." The manager should seek to limit Butera's exposure against strong opponents as much as possible, and to react appropriately when Mauer seems to be especially tender.
Of course, this whole topic will likely reignite the debate over whether or not Mauer should at some point be moved away from the catcher position. For the long-term, that course of action is starting to seem more and more logical. He's had an extremely difficult time holding up over a full season at the game's most physically demanding position, and with $23 million owed to him annually over the next eight years that's becoming more and more tough to stomach.
Unfortunately, the front office traded away last year the one player in the organization with a decent chance at becoming an everyday big-league catcher. So unless a younger prospect can rise meteorically over the next couple seasons, Mauer's replacement would likely have to come from outside the organization.
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