Mauer is Twins’ missing link
By Dave Campbell
MINNEAPOLIS — Joe Mauer wants to be a catcher as long as he can, even though its the most hazardous position on the field.
The Minnesota Twins share his desire, despite the noticeable absence of their All-Star, batting champion and three-hole hitter when he’s not in the lineup.
Less than a month removed from his 24th birthday, Mauer is far too young to ponder a position switch to prolong his career. He’s valuable behind the plate for his throwing arm and work with the pitching staff.
But it only takes a bump or a bruise for some to wonder whether Mauer’s bat is too valuable to be worn down by the mitt and the mask. The issue was raised again last weekend, when Mauer’s left quadriceps muscle became too stiff and sore to keep playing and sent him to the disabled list.
Mauer missed most of his rookie season in 2004 when he tore the meniscus cartilage in his left knee while trying to make a sliding catch of a foul ball at the Metrodome. He bounced back just fine from that, but in March a stress reaction — the precursor to a stress fracture — developed in his left leg and kept him out for nine days of spring training.
Though the first injury happened while he was catching, it had nothing to do with wear and tear. His current condition lingered for weeks before flaring up, but it was pinned on baserunning — not crouching.
"You can’t stop running, even if you’re not catching," Mauer said, politely brushing off another question about his long-term future at the only position he’s played since his teens.
General manager Terry Ryan said he’s never spoken about the subject with Mauer, who signed in February a four-year contract worth $33 million.
"It’s not a necessary discussion," Ryan said, pointing to Detroit Tigers catcher Ivan Rodriguez’s decorated 17-year career as both a feared hitter and a perennial Gold Glove award winner.
Rodriguez is only 5-foot-9, and Mauer has grown to 6-foot-5, but he’s lean enough to avoid extra stress on his lower body.
"Sure, it’s a grind, but he’s not 265 pounds, either," teammate Mike Redmond said. "He’s a pretty skinny guy."
Even Chicago White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski — who said he wouldn’t be surprised if Mauer eventually moved to another position because of the number of good hitters who have done so over the years — dismissed the question about Mauer’s above-average height.
Right now, Mauer’s more eager than ever to put his gear on and get behind the plate. It sure beats riding the stationary bike and soaking in the ice tub.
"I hope I’m ready sooner than later," Mauer said, sounding less than confident about an immediate return once he’s eligible to come off the disabled list this Sunday.
Redmond is a popular presence in the clubhouse who hit .311 and .341 in his first two seasons with Minnesota and is currently batting .307 after collecting 13 hits in 26 at-bats in the last seven games. Mauer has been absent for the last eight.
But even Redmond, a 36-year-old career backup, realizes Mauer is missed. It’s not just the batting title he won last year — the first catcher to do that in the AL — but the calming effect his patience has on the others.
"It trickles down," center fielder Torii Hunter said, adding: "He’s not jumping after pitches. He’s letting them come to him and just trusting his God-given ability."
Right-hander Carlos Silva mentioned his catcher without prompting last week.
"I watch Mauer, and he swings so easy and so smooth," Silva said, describing how he has tried to apply those principles to his pitching.
So the Twins will be careful not to bring Mauer back too fast this month, fully aware of his value and determined to preserve his ability to catch.
"Hopefully I can be behind the plate for a long time," he said.
AP Sports Writer Jon Krawczynski contributed to this report.