KANSAS CITY, MO. - A baseball franchise doesn't nosedive like the Twins have this year because one thing goes wrong.

To drop this suddenly -- from six division titles in nine seasons to a team fighting to avoid 100 losses -- the Twins have experienced failure at all levels of the organization, from the players, to manager Ron Gardenhire and his coaches, to the team's medical staff, to General Manager Bill Smith and his advisers, to the scouting and player development departments.

Injuries and a tough early-season schedule, thick with road games, have been factors, as Smith noted this week, but those don't fully explain a nosedive this drastic. The Star Tribune starts a four-part series analyzing reasons for the dramatic and unforeseen collapse of the Twins.

Joe Mauer hasn't been the only one injured. He is one of 11 players from the Opening Day roster who have landed on the disabled list.

But in the first year of his eight-year, $184 million contract, Mauer hovers over everything the Twins do, even when he's not on the field. Make that especially when he's not on the field.

The ongoing mystery surrounding his prolonged absence -- he is said to be suffering from bilateral leg weakness, a viral infection and a right shoulder problem -- is turning into a public relations nightmare for the team, and for Mauer himself. The hometown hero with three batting titles to his credit has been criticized harshly by fans on Internet chat sites and talk radio. Even some people within the organization have responded with an eye roll when talking about Mauer's slow progress.

Mauer and the Twins have insisted they aren't hiding a more serious condition, but the longer he's out, the more doubts arise. The $23 million salary Mauer is drawing this season, coupled with the team's woeful record, is adding to the unrest.

His new deal, signed in March 2010, when he was coming off an MVP season and sitting seven months from potential free agency, will affect every financial decision the team makes through 2018.

Though the Twins stretched their payroll to $113 million this year, more than one-fifth of that goes to Mauer, whose salary is the fourth-highest in baseball. Throw in Justin Morneau, Joe Nathan, Michael Cuddyer, Carl Pavano and Matt Capps, and the Twins are paying about $75 million for six players.

That has created a roster that might be described as stars and scrubs. If the Twins were to repeat as division champs, they needed to either stay healthy or have their minor league reinforcements perform as they have in recent seasons.

But in 2011, the promotions have provided ample evidence why the top two farm clubs -- Class AAA Rochester and Class AA New Britain -- were a combined 93-193 last season.

That money tied up in Mauer and the five other highest-paid players severely limits what the Twins can do with the rest of their roster. At no position is that more evident than catcher, where they entered the year with Mauer and his .327 career batting average, and Drew Butera, with his .197 career average.

No safety net

For years, Smith and his GM predecessor, Terry Ryan, had been criticized for not pushing the envelope with midseason trades. Last July, Smith went all in, trading one of baseball's top catching prospects, Wilson Ramos, to the Washington Nationals for Capps, an All-Star closer.

While Nathan was out for the season with an elbow injury, Jon Rauch had done an admirable job at closer, but the Twins had visions of a deep October playoff run and wanted someone more fail-safe than Rauch.

"Unfortunately we did not play well in the playoffs, but it's a risk we had to take at that time," Smith said.

Capps did exactly what the Twins wanted, converting 16 of 18 save opportunities with a 2.00 ERA down the stretch. But he didn't even get a save opportunity in the playoffs, as the Yankees swept the Twins in three games.

"We wouldn't have made the deal if we didn't have Capps coming back for this season," Smith said, and the Twins have needed a closer, with Nathan battling the effects of Tommy John surgery.

This year, Ramos has been an impressive rookie for the Nationals, if not a star. He is batting .242 with three homers and 14 RBI. After playing Washington last month, Orioles manager Buck Showalter told reporters: "I love that Ramos kid. That's about as good a young player as I've seen this year. The kid they got from Minnesota. He's really impressive."

Ramos would have looked nice filling in for Mauer the past seven weeks, and the Twins traded away another option in Jose Morales.

Considered a below-average defensive catcher, the switch-hitting Morales batted .311 over 54 games in 2010 but only .194 last year. He was out of minor league options, and the Twins didn't think he would make their team out of spring training.

The Twins traded Morales to the Rockies in December for minor league pitcher Paul Bargas. Morales has served as Colorado's backup catcher behind Chris Ianetta and is batting .217 in 18 games. Sadly, Bargas has developed brain cancer and is being treated at the UCLA medical center.

With no other impressive catching prospects above Class A, the Twins signed six-year minor league free agents Steve Holm and Rene Rivera to provide depth at Class AAA Rochester.

But with Mauer batting .235 in nine games, the Twins have been stuck with Butera (.140), Holm (.118) and Rivera (.227). Entering Friday, Twins catchers combined to bat an MLB-worst .173 with a .478 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS).

"Obviously, we didn't have a lot of offense to replace Joe Mauer behind the plate," Smith said. "We need him back. He's a critical part of this ballclub. It's important we get him back and get him healthy and get him back in our lineup, for the short term and the long term."

Haphazard rehab plan

The Twins knew Mauer's durability was a major question. Late last season, he injured his left knee, the same one he had surgically repaired as a rookie in 2004. He saw several doctors and finally had another arthroscopic surgery on the knee in mid-December.

By late January, Mauer was talking about taking things slow in spring training and how the goal was to be ready for the April 1 opener. But in mid-March, he sped up the timetable.

"I might not have been totally honest with myself and just trying to suck it up and play," Mauer said.

Knowing the expectations that came with his giant new contract, the four-time All-Star pushed himself to be ready, and the Twins didn't step in and slow him down.

"He was swinging as good as anybody on our team at the end of spring training, and he was healthy, feeling great, better than he's ever felt," Gardenhire said. "That's really hard for a manager or anybody else to say we're going to DL him. It just doesn't make sense.

"In hindsight, if we would have known that after two weeks he was going to be sore, all over, maybe we should have done this, I'd say that's kind of ridiculous really."

On April 14, the Twins placed Mauer on the DL, saying he had "bilateral leg weakness." His return has been delayed as he recovers from leg weakness, a right shoulder injury and a viral infection that caused him to lose 10-15 pounds.

The Twins are now hoping Mauer can return in mid-June, but it already appears too late to salvage this team's once buoyant playoff hopes.

If the rest of the roster were relatively healthy, if several others weren't producing well below expectations, the loss of Mauer might not look as glaring. But he's the most important piece of this big, complicated puzzle.