Six-time All-Star Joe Mauer is going to miss the Midsummer Classic with an oblique injury this year. This would normally not be cause for alarm -- Mauer missed it in 2007 and 2011 as well -- except that the game is being played in Minneapolis, and Major League Baseball designated him the All-Star Ambassador in April, meaning that he will be hosting the event. The three-time AL batting champion, three-time Gold Glove winner and four-time Silver Slugger will have to glad-hand at the FanFest while knowing he is not on the All-Star team this season. “It’s been a trying year," Mauer admitted the morning after he was placed on the 15-day disabled list. “It’s frustrating any time you go on the DL, but’s it’s even more frustrating when you feel like you’ve been playing pretty well lately, and it felt like things were going my way."
The key phrase with Mauer this season has been “stick to the plan." Through all his early season struggles that have accompanied his move to first base and recovery from concussion, Mauer has been trying to do what has worked for him his whole career -- with mixed results.
“I’m feeling pretty good, actually, which is even more frustrating because I’m hitting a lot of balls hard and not having much to show for it," he said at the end of May. “Hopefully that turns here soon. I just have to try to have some good at-bats and keep having some good at-bats and hopefully they keep falling."
“It is un-Mauer-like, but he’ll get going," general manager Terry Ryan assured the media following the press conference announcing the signing of Kendrys Morales. “His track record is too good, his health is too good, there is no reason he can’t string together four or five games quickly and, all of a sudden, it’s happening.
“It’ll return. He’ll have a way of figuring things out."
“My experience with Joe is when it’s all said and done his numbers are going to be there," offered Terry Steinbach, himself a Minnesotan and former catcher. “Sometimes he starts off quicker, sometimes he starts a little bit slower, but he’s a professional hitter, a great hitter, and just through the course of time, it’s gonna happen."
“It doesn’t happen overnight," echoed Gardenhire back in May. “We’re only a month into the season. He’ll be fine."
Mauer Apologists. That’s what anybody who has brushed off the former catcher’s sub-par numbers at the plate have been called. In reality what people are saying is: He’ll get better. And recently, he has. But still, .250, .260 or .270 doesn’t make you a major league All-Star, especially at first base.
Maybe it’s that thought -- the insistence that he’ll get better as long as he trusts the process -- that results in Mauer taking the brunt of the blame for the Twins’ downfall since 2010. He is a microcosm of the Twins Way: Keep doing it the way it’s been done and results will follow. That’s not to say Minnesota has eschewed advanced statistics -- they hired Jack Goin primarily as a stats guru -- or that they are completely averse to change. But they believe in a system that works and tend to stick to it.
Having said that, we’ve seen a little more frustration from Mauer than in years past. Typically laconic and reserved, Gentleman Joe has piped up recently, at least by his standards. When he says, “It’s funny, I feel I’ve had some bad pitches called on me," as he did in mid-April, he’s saying a lot. When he says, “I’m probably a lot more frustrated than those people who were booing," as he did at the end of May, he’s saying a lot. When he says, “It’s hard to deal with, All-Star Game or not," that’s big.
People confuse his stoic nature with indifference. He cares, and the losing wears on him.
He’s never going to have a Kevin Love moment where he tells a reporter that his team do not have a plan, even though the team has had three 90-loss seasons and only one winning season since he signed his eight-year, $184 million contract in 2010. He’s never going to get upset with the fans, even when they booed him for getting injured in 2011 and for slumping this year, even though he knows many of those same fans would have treated him like he was LeBron James if he had announced he was going to join the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox or another big-market team before signing his blockbuster deal.
He’s never going to say it, but he’s probably not thrilled that he shoulders a lot of the blame for the team’s recent losing records. Twins fans got used to division titles. Twins fans got used to playoff appearances. Twins fans were expecting that with the opening of a new ballpark, the team would become the St. Louis Cardinals North. Instead, they became the Pittsburgh Pirates or the Milwaukee Brewers -- teams that got new parks and emptied them out with losing seasons.
Mauer has become the scapegoat for the Twins’ organizational issues
There’s a lot more people tweeting about Mauer’s inadequacies that those of the Twins front office. Sure, people talk about Ramos-for-Capps, Garza-for-Young and Hardy-for-Hoey, but Bill Smith is not scapegoated for the Twins’ failures like David Kahn is for the Minnesota Timberwolves woes.
Blame often falls squarely on Mauer’s shoulders even though it’s not his fault that the rotation combusted in 2011 and hasn’t fully recovered. There isn’t much thought given to the fact that Michael Cuddyer, Matt Garza, Francisco Liriano, J.J. Hardy, Carlos Gomez and Justin Morneau are all playing on different teams now. And few people mention that recent first round picks, Chris Parmelee (2006) and Aaron Hicks (2008), haven’t panned out so far and that a third, Trevor Plouffe (2004), has offered inconsistent production.
But Mauer is making $23 million and he doesn’t hit home runs, he’s been slumping this year and he plays every day -- so blame him. It’s simpler to blame one man than many. He’s Bill Buckner. He’s Steve Bartman.
Nobody talks about how the Red Sox were up two runs at the top of the 10th in 1986. Or how the New York Mets tied the game by hitting three straight two-out singles off of Calvin Schiraldi and coaxing a wild pitch from Bob Stanley. Or that the Boston Red Sox were leading 3-0 in Game 7 and blew that lead.
All they talk about is the ball that rolled between Buckner’s legs.
Similarly, in the Bartman case, nobody talks about how Mark Prior walked Luis Castillo on a wild pitch following the incident, allowing Juan Pierre to advance to third. Or that Alex Gonzalez mishandled a routine double-play ball that would have gotten them out of the inning. Or that it was the eighth inning and the team was leading 3-0 before Bartman reached over the outfield wall. All they talk about is Bartman’s ill-advised attempt to catch a foul ball.
Yes, Twins fans are fed up with the organization. Once a model for how a small-market team should be run -- akin to the Oakland Athletics or Tampa Bay Rays -- Minnesota is creeping towards Seattle Mariners territory. Plouffe, Parmelee and Hicks are looking more and more like Dennis Ackley, Justin Smoak and Mike Zunino every day. They have been accused of fostering a “country club" culture, one that has refused to adapt to today’s game with platooning and advanced metrics.
Some of that is true, some of it isn’t. But the bottom line is Mauer is the one that gets pilloried. He’s Mr. Minnesota Twin. He advocated keeping manager Ron Gardenhire when his contract was up last season. He is quiet and patient, and he has never complained about the way things are done in Minnesota despite the recent losses that have piled up.
As a result, he’s been accused of being soft, greedy and complacent. People got mad when he took off time due to leg injuries and his concussion and other minor ailments. They can’t stand that he makes $23 million and hasn’t hit more than 20 home runs since his MVP season in 2009. And they don’t like that he doesn’t seem upset when he’s slumping.
The bottom line is Joe Mauer went from hometown hero to scapegoat since signing long-term with the Twins in 2010. The real question is: How did this happen?
He could have been Minnesota’s LeBron James
Think back to 2010. The Twins were in a much happier place: The team had just won its fifth Central Division title, had a strong core of players on the major league roster and were opening a new ballpark. Minnesota appeared to be on the cusp of breaking through against the New York Yankees -- eventually David had to slay Goliath -- and their homegrown catcher was going to lead the way.
Mauer was coming off of an MVP season, hitting .365/.444/.587 with 28 home runs and 96 RBIs. No. 7 jerseys were flying off the shelf, and the Twins had to assure that they would sell out their new stadium, Target Field -- the House that Mauer Built. Had they not re-signed him, $184 million price tag or not, not only would the “new era of outdoor baseball" have been a tougher sell, but Mauer would have become public enemy No. 1 in Minnesota.
In the same year that LeBron James made “The Decision" to “Take his talents to South Beach," leaving his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat, it would have been yet another blow to die-hard, small-market fans. It may be harder to fathom now following the three straight 90-loss seasons, but Mauer would have been LeBron. Someone would have burnt a jersey. He would have been booed -- not for being injured or slumping, but for betraying the place where he was born and raised.
The basketball analogy is apt here too because had Mauer chosen basketball, and had the ability to be an NBA star, perhaps his scapegoating would have been a little more justified. LeBron was able to carry an undermanned Cavs team to the NBA Finals in 2007, but he was able to get them to the playoffs five years in a row before departing to join Miami. One player can drag a team to the playoffs in basketball, but the same cannot be said in baseball. Mauer can’t bat in the 3-, 4- and 5-hole. He can’t pitch in the rotation. He’s one of nine guys on the field; not one of five.
There are a few people that have disliked Mauer since the beginning -- not enough power, too quiet -- and, to be fair, they’ve remained consistent, even through his better seasons. At the same time, no matter how much you think of one player, he can only do so much. Joey Votto can’t turn the Cincinnati Reds into the Big Red Machine. Andrew McCutcheon can’t turn the Pirates into the We Are Family team of 1979. Mauer can’t turn the Twins into Cardinals North.
It can’t go without saying, though, that there are many people that held Mauer up to be a hometown hero, a baseball god, but as soon as he suffered knee and head injuries -- as soon as he became human -- he was treated like LeBron sans the jersey burning. LeBron left his hometown to chase a ring; Mauer decided to try to win one in Minnesota. He wants to win a championship for his hometown, and there’s something to be said about that.
Mauer might turn out to be Minnesota’s Tony Gwynn
Let’s start with the numbers. Mauer is hitting .320/.401/.461 lifetime with 107 home runs and 662 runs batted in. He is in his 11th season with the Twins and his wins above replacement (WAR) is 45.0. Gwynn played 20 seasons with the San Diego Padres (1982-2001), hit .338/.388/.459 with 135 HR and 1138 RBI. He owns a WAR of 68.8.
Mauer is 31; Gwynn retired at 41. The only year Gwynn hit below .300 was in his rookie season, 1982, and had four of his best seasons between 34 and 37, leading the league in average with video game numbers -- .394 (in the strike-shortened 1994 season), .368, .353, .372 -- and retired with a .324/.384/.461 line, which is about what Mauer hit last season (.324/.404/.476) when he won his fifth Silver Slugger Award.
In order to be Gwynn, however, Mauer has to keep hitting like he did in his 20s, which is no easy task. Even in his injury-riddled 2011 season he hit .287/.360/.368, but time will tell how much those injuries, combined with a concussion last season, will affect him in his 30s.
Some people have called into question how history will view Mauer. If Gwynn is any indication, a congenial player that stays with one team throughout his career will be received well. It wasn’t a large topic of discussion that some of those Padres teams Gwynn was on were undermanned or that he never took his talents north to try and win a World Series with the Dodgers or Angels -- or went to the East Coast for that matter.
It seems that people still value a player that wants to win in a certain location, especially if a player calls that place home.
He might not be worth $23 million anymore, but does it matter?
Mauer’s contract ends during his age 35 season, and he will likely take less money. This is more as a result of his change from a catcher to first baseman than to his production at the plate. Once a prolific offensive threat at the catcher’s position, his lack of power is more scrutinized now that he is at a position where home runs are expected. He still could command a hefty sum if he continues to hit as Gwynn did in his late 30s, but it is unlikely that Mauer will be worth $23 million. The sad truth is that as soon as Mauer sustained that concussion last season, his value dropped, even if he is worth more in Minnesota because of his roots and community outreach in the Twin Cities.
Keep in mind, however, that he was making less than $500,000 during his first three seasons and didn’t make seven figures until his MVP season in 2009. In some ways, by keeping him around, the Twins got good value out of him during the entirety of his career.
The Twins have been criticized for putting Mauer at first base -- as opposed to moving him to third or the outfield -- but Gardenhire counters by saying that it is a position where he is involved in just about every play. “I read somewhere somebody said we’re wasting his athletic ability at first base," said the skipper back in May. “Well, I have a hard time with that statement. The ball goes there as much as it did [when he was] the catcher."
Gardenhire says the Twins have tried Mauer at third, but that move doesn’t make a lot of sense. Trevor Plouffe has improved defensively since being moved from shortstop to the hot corner two years ago. He’s shown he’s capable of hitting for power (24 home runs in 2012) and is hitting more doubles this season, although he has yet to raise his average and still has to prove that he can stay healthy and replicate his power numbers from two years ago. They probably want to play Plouffe out, knowing he is in the prime of his career, could have some value, and was a former first round pick.
Another reason third base doesn’t make much sense is that blue-chip prospect Miguel Sano is projected to play there in the major leagues. This could become a predicament, however, if his arm does not recover fully from Tommy John surgery and he has to be moved to first base, or suffers further injury, creating an additional setback.
“We tried third base way back," Gardenhire says in regard to Mauer. “I got hit in the knees standing behind him, and we cancelled that one when he missed the ball and got me."
Gardenhire says that the team has considered the outfield with Mauer, but it was foreign to him. While Mauer played some other infield positions in Little League and high school -- shortstop, second, third -- he didn’t play much in the outfield. “Some guys profile out there as outfielders, and Joe could probably do that," he said. “He can run, he can probably run the ball down if he had done it his whole life, played the outfield, but I’m venturing to say that’s not something he was accustomed to."
“When I put him in right field, he told me that’s the most afraid he’s ever been on a baseball field," Gardenhire continued, chuckling. “That’s not a good statement. He could do it if you give him more time, but the ball doesn’t come there an awful lot. It comes to first base."
Even the outfield is getting kind of jammed. Byron Buxton is supposed to be the franchise center fielder, Oswaldo Arcia will be expected to play right and Aaron Hicks will play left -- assuming he can get his swing figured out. Chris Parmelee also can be used as a bench player in right.
Mauer is likely to be a first baseman for the rest of his career. The key will be making the adjustment at the plate as well as in the field. After moving out from behind the plate, Mauer has had some trouble tracking pitches because he is no longer catching. “There’s a reason why he’s a great hitter, “says Gardenhire. “He uses the catching part of it as tracking pitches too and seeing the ball, and I thought that was pretty good stuff. That’s not something that you think about too often, so that’s an adjustment for him."
While his numbers are more common among first basemen then they are among catchers, if he continues to hit .300 and drive in runs, even with a dearth of power, he’ll be worth spending money on. In the end, there are no salary caps in baseball, meaning that to an average fan, it really doesn’t matter how much the Twins spend on him. What does matter, however, is that Minnesota spends the money to put a good team around him -- something they haven’t been able to do since the mass exodus of talent in 2011.
Ultimately, the Twins have to put a team around Mauer
Since Mauer joined the Twins in 2004, Mauer has seen plenty of his talented teammates leave the organization. Gone are Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, Francisco Liriano, Matt Garza, Kyle Lohse, Torii Hunter, J.J. Hardy, Carlos Gomez and many other All-Stars. Not all great players can stay within the organization, but that’s an awful lot of talent that has departed. Morneau’s departure hit Mauer the hardest and, back in 2010 when the M&M Boys were the showcase stars for the new ballpark, nobody thought he was going to end up somewhere else.
Minnesota is unlikely to go out and spend millions of dollars to create a makeshift team around Mauer, especially because that kind of spending doesn’t often work -- even for big-market teams. At their core, the Twins are still the draft-and-develop team they always have been, only now they should be able to keep their stars. For the Twins to win a championship with Mauer, they are going to have to work with what they’ve got.
Alex Meyer and Trevor May are going to have to come up and supplement a rotation that will include Ricky Nolasco, Phil Hughes and Kyle Gibson. The core bullpen -- Glen Perkins, Casey Fien, Brian Duensing, Anthony Swarzak and Caleb Thielbar -- has to stay intact and be supplemented. Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano have to pan out. Aaron Hicks has to turn his career around. Brian Dozier needs to continue to play like a franchise player, and Josmil Pinto has to develop defensively behind the plate while maintaining his swing.
On top of that, the Twins still need a shortstop: Eduardo Escobar, Eduardo Nunez or someone from the outside. Chris Parmelee and Chris Colabello are wild cards that could find a spot in the lineup if they can produce consistently. And, of course, there will be free agent signings and call-ups.
In the end, the Twins need more superstars like Mauer, so it doesn’t make sense to chase him away.
Tom Schreier can be heard on The Michael Knight Show from 2-3:00 on weekdays. He has written for Bleacher Report and the Yahoo Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @tschreier3.