FORT MYERS, FLA. – Once a surefire Hall of Famer whose every twitch attracted attention, Joe Mauer is gliding through the quietest spring of his career. Eight years removed from his last batting title and seven years after signing the contract that would define and test him, Mauer faces newly lowered expectations.
Once revered as a player who could hit .300 while blindfolded, Mauer batted a career-low .261 last season while the Twins lost 103 games, also the worst mark of Mauer’s tenure. Not long ago every Mauer wince elicited blanket coverage; he admitted Wednesday that no one had asked him this spring about lingering concussion symptoms.
Less than a month away from his 34th birthday, Mauer is about to start the next-to-last season on his $184 million contract. Traditionally a No. 3 hitter, he likely will be used as a leadoff or in the second spot to capitalize on his remaining statistical strength — on-base percentage. Given his struggles against lefthanders last year, he could be rested or moved lower in the order this season against them.
He hasn’t batted .300 since 2013. At that point, even given his injuries and the incorrectly stated “bilateral leg weakness” amateur diagnosis that tainted his career, Mauer remained on pace to finish his career as one of the greatest-hitting catchers in baseball history.
He’ll enter the 2017 season as a light-hitting first baseman with a tenuous role on a bad team with, perhaps, the end of his career in sight.
Asked whether he feels he can return to the ranks of .300 hitters this season, Mauer said, “I do. Last season there were some bad things that happened, but there were also some good things. There were stretches where I was feeling pretty good and putting up the numbers I normally do. For me … keeping myself healthy is the key, and I think if I do that, everything else will take care of itself.”
Mauer hit .321 last April. He hit .253, .223 and .250 in the next three months but found his stroke in August, batting .337. Few noticed, because few were watching Twins baseball by that point of the season.
On Aug. 16, Mauer was batting .284 with a respectable .801 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) for the season. He wouldn’t need to improve either number much to be a valuable player. That day, trying to score from first in a game at Atlanta, he strained a quadriceps muscle.
He would hit .111 in September and October.
If you want to believe Mauer can resurrect his career, you can point to the injury and its aftermath as the cause of his swoon. If you believe Mauer will never again be an impact player, you can note that Mauer has spent the past six seasons facing physical impediments.
Other than his manager, Paul Molitor, few players have ever become healthier and more durable late in their careers.
“For me, last season, there were other things going on,” Mauer said. “I strained my quad and ever since that happened, things started to get worse. But I’m looking forward to this year, and I feel good and I want to keep it that way.
“I just tried to play through it and it led to other things, too. Throughout the course of the year, you deal with a lot of nicks and things here and there. I always say, going back to the root of the problem last year was a very specific injury. This winter, No. 1 was to make sure I was healthy before I got into my normal routine. I took some time. Once I did that, I was able to make some good gains heading into the spring.”
Molitor has been one of Mauer’s most vocal supporters, in part because he respects the art of the quality at-bat, and perhaps in part because Mauer’s salary makes him immovable and the franchise has failed to produce players good enough to take Mauer’s job.
This spring, Molitor has hinted that Mauer’s role could change.
“I’ve had some conversations with him as well as some other people, particularly top-of-the-lineup contenders, that you’re going to see yourself in some different roles as we try to put together somewhat of a plan,” Molitor said.
“Chances are it’s going to have flexibility and moving parts as we go along. I’ve spent a lot of time on the lineup the last four or five days in my mind and on paper, consulting with some people, trying to figure out how to shape it.
“We kind of know how it’s trending, and we’re going to have to make decisions accordingly.”
Mauer said he’s happy to bat anywhere in the lineup and believes his struggles against lefthanders were an aberration. Asked if he enters 2017 with real optimism, Mauer nodded and said, “Yeah.”
He paused, and seemed to be considering further explanation, before nodding again and saying, “Yeah. Absolutely.”