The Twins off-season got started with bang yesterday when the Twins announced that six-time All-Star and former AL MVP catcher Joe Mauer was leaving the tools of ignorance behind and moving to first base full-time. The Twins having been saying all along that Mauer was free of his concussion symptoms and that he was their catcher unless they heard differently. But yet GM Terry Ryan needed to know for sure where Mauer was going to play in 2014. Mauer is a foundation player the team needs to build around and they need to know what building blocks they need and the sooner that Mauer made a decision on his future, the sooner Ryan can begin to assemble his team. So I can’t help but wonder how much pressure the Twins applied to Mauer to get him to make a decision on what position he wanted to call home in 2014 and beyond. I know that Mauer is a great player but how many baseball teams have waited on one of their players to tell them where he wants to play?
Mauer said the decision was both difficult but yet easy, I think I can understand what he is saying. Mauer had to be thinking he had a shot at being the Twins catcher for as long as he wanted and that down the line the Hall of Fame would be calling. But then Joe’s life changed when he got married after the 2012 season and before he knew it, he was the father of twins himself. Later in the 2013 season he suffered through a serious concussion and his season ended 6 week earlier then he had planned. Mauer is a proud man and giving up catching, something he has done his entire life had to be hard. But Mauer is also a smart man and he understands that family and health always comes first. Money will never be an issue for Joe and his family but his health could become a problem if he continued to catch. Mix in what his good friend Justin Morneau went through, all the other catcher concussion issues in 2013 and all the recent reports of football players and their problems and Joe really had no choice. Joe Mauer, always the team player and being the good guy he is stepped up and informed the Twins that his decision was made.
The griping is rampant that first base is a power position and it normally is but there have been a number of very good first basemen since 1960 that hit 15 or fewer home runs, knocked in 90 to 111 RBI and hit for a high average. Players like Rod Carew, Keith Hernandez, Mark Grace, and Pete Rose come to mind and they were pretty good players. It will be interesting also to see if moving from a tough position like catcher to an easier position to play like first base actually makes Mauer an even better hitter. Something akin to a pitcher moving from starting to relief and picking up a few MPH on his fastball.
Mauer moving to first base has huge implications on numerous players. I doubt that Justin Morneau entertained thoughts of returning to Minnesota anyway but this move puts an end to that possibility. Chris Colabello might as well call his agent and ask him to pursue a trade. Chris Parmelee instantly became an outfielder and sometimes first baseman. But who is going to replace Mauer behind home plate? The Twins have four catchers on the roster at the present time, Josmil Pinto, Chris Herrmann, Eric Fryer and Ryan Doumit. Each and every one of these guys has some warts, Doumit is a decent hitter but a poor catcher plus he had his own bout with a concussion last season, you have to wonder if he wants to catch any more. Herrmann seems like he has been around for ever but he is only 25 but I don’t think the Twins envision him as a full-time catcher. The 28 year-old Fryer can’t hit a lick and the Twins are the fourth organization that he has played with. That leaves us with Josmil Pinto, 24, who was a September call-up and appeared in 21 games hitting .342 with four home runs. With just 21 big league games under his belt and just 19 AAA games you have to wonder if he is ready to make the jump to the big leagues as a full-time catcher. Mauer only caught 5 games in AAA but Pinto is not Joe Mauer. You also keep hearing that Pinto’s catching skills still need work but you can use that excuse on most any catcher. The Twins could go out and sign a free agent veteran but does a team that lost 96 games two years in a row want to spend money on a veteran catcher? I am not sure I would but there is one catcher that I would sign if the price was right and if he was willing to come back to Minnesota. A.J. Pierzynski would be the one catcher I would be willing to spend a few dollars to sign. Why? Because the man comes to play every day, he can hit, he is a decent catcher that would help the Twins pitching staff, he can teach Pinto what it takes to be a big league catcher and most of all Pierzynski will teach the entire team what it takes to win. The Twins could do a lot worse than signing A.J. for a year or two.
Almost lost in all the Joe Mauer news is the fact that the Twins signed former Twins shortstop Jason Bartlett to a minor league deal. The Twins originally acquired Bartlett from the San Diego Padres in a trade for Brian Buchanan in July 2002. Bartlett played short for the Twins from 2004-2007 but did not earn a full-time gig at short until 2007. Then after the 2007 season then GM Bill Smith sent him, Matt Garza, and Eduardo Morlan to Tampa for Delmon Young, Brendan Harris, and Jason Pridie. Bartlett spent 2008-2010 in Tampa before being traded back to the Padres who had originally drafted and signed him in 2001. Bartlett spent 2011 as the Padres shortstop but injured his knee early in 2012 and missed the remainder of the season and didn’t play at all in 2013. Now that Bartlett feels that his knee is healthy again he wants to play again and the Twins are going to give him that chance.
What I find interesting about the Twins signing the 34 year-old Bartlett is that he only plays short. Bartlett has played ever inning of his big league carer at short except for one inning back in 2004 when he moved over to second base for the Twins. This does not Bartlett much of a candidate for the utility man role. That means that the Twins are bringing Bartlett to push Pedro Florimon for the starting shortstop job. Florimon was rated one of the leagues better fielding shortstops but hitting .221 in 134 games has left a lot to be desired. Every team including the Twins claims to value defense, particularly up the middle, but in reality offense trumps defense. Particularly with a team like the Twins who had trouble scoring runs, you sacrifice some defense to score some runs. If Bartlett is healthy and shows that he can still hit, he could well be the starting shortstop when the Twins open the 2014 season.