WTNYSeptember 28, 2004
Twin Cities (c. 2005)
By Bryan Smith

In Mondays edition of Under the Knife, Will Carroll cited an article that Joe Mauer has been taking groundballs at third base. This comes as quite a shock to Mauer fans, who unanimously voiced Mauer as the best prospect in baseball six months ago. In no way has Joe proven these notions to be false, but instead been the victim of injury.

There is no question that the knees as a catchers most important body part. Joe Mauer has hurt that, and with that drastically affected his future. The Twins disagree with this, but Will Carroll tells me, That's near impossible. I dont think [the Twins] are lying I just think they're wrong. How wrong? I cant imagine him staying back there for more than a couple years. No way he gets to free agency as a catcher.

During the offseason, Terry Ryan showed his confidence in his former #1 overall pick, who had yet to take part in a Major league at-bat. Ryan traded established All-Star A.J. Pierzynski to the San Francisco Giants, to make way for his stud prospect. This stud prospect was following a season in which he was named Baseball America Player of the Year, after hitting .339 between two levels. Mauers title went from the future to the present overnight.

Spring Training brought no changes to the plan, as Mauer hit .313 in 32 Spring Training at-bats. Mauers season began on April 5 against the Cleveland Indians, when he went 2/3, with two walks and two runs scored. Hell, he had two official Major League at-bats, and his name was half-way carved into the Rookie of the Year trophy. And then April 6, Mauer was lost to a mildly sprained knee, which would prevent him from playing again until June 3.

From June until July 15, Mauer would have 103 at-bats, where he would hit .291 with six home runs. Why italicized? We are talking about a guy who in the minors had hit nine homers in 1,030 at-bats. A 21-year-old catcher had gone from hitting a homer every 114 AB in the minors to every 17 AB in the Majors. There were reports of Aaron Gleeman drool sightings from Milwaukee.

July 15 was the last time we heard from Joe Mauer. His surgically repaired knee caused enough problems for Minnesota to hold him out all season long. How much would this decision hurt? Well, non-Mauer Minnesota catchers hit .212 this season...thats bad. Sure, Henry Blanco proved to be Pudge Rodriguez behind the plate, but I think its safe to say the Twins would have downgraded 10% in CS% for .355 points of OPS.

But this is all just a review, and this site aint called Wait Til Next Year for nothing. Whats next for the Minnesota Twins and their prized 21-year-old catcher? Well, what we know at this point is possibly not catching. It should come as no surprise that a .900+ OPS behind the plate is more available than the same numbers at the hot corner. Why is this true? Well, I urge you to read some Dayn Perry, who tells us that from 1972-present, catching is the least valuable hitting position, while third base is sixth on the spectrum.

At this point though, any Joe Mauer is a helluva lot better than no Joe Mauer. Finding a spot for Mauer in the lineup is most important, whatever that means from a team standpoint. And this explains third base. Well, that and the fact that Corey Koskie is a free agent at seasons close.

Twins fans were surely expecting their 2005 third basemen to be Terry Tiffee, a 26-year-old minor league veteran that put up a .307/.357/.522 line at AAA. Before injuring his shoulder on September 13, Tiffee had also expressed Major League brass, putting together a .282/.349/.513 line in 39 Major League at-bats. Cheap? Check. Effective? Check. Fan favorite/Paul Lo Duca-like? Check.

So, how do Terry Tiffee and Joe Mauer fit on this roster. Well, lets check platoon splits. Mauer had a 1.146 OPS vs. RH in 74AB in 2004, compared to a .475 OPS in 33 encounters with southpaws. Sample size, yes, but thats still one huge difference. Tiffee presents an even smaller sample size, but I should note he hit .167 vs. LH (though his OPS was .841). By studying just those numbers, I can tell you the Twins would probably like Tiffee and Mauer in the lineup with a right-hander on the mound.

But who the Hell can hit left-handers? The first to raise his hand surely would be Matt LeCroy, who hit .322 against them this year, and .302 from 2001-2003. LeCroy doesnt offer much in the way of positioning, but hes one good platoon DH/third catcher. Also impressive was Michael Cuddyer, the old top Twins prospect, who hit .292/.380/.450 against southpaws in 2004. Cuddyer can also play some second base, though I should note Luis Rivas even boasted a .800+ OPS against left-handers in 2004.

One way or the other, we know Corey Koskie will not be a Twin next year. Joining him should be Cristian Guzman, the long-time Twin mainstay at shortstop. Hell be replaced by Jason Bartlett, another prospect once acquired for Brian Buchanon. The former Padre hit .331/.415/.472 in AAA this year, also showing solid defense up the middle. Well, maybe Gleeman drool can be reconceived after all.

Will anyone else be joining Koskie and Guzman? I sure hope so. 2004 saw the emergence of Lew Ford, a 28-year-old minor league veteran stolen from the Boston Red Sox, who had a .845 OPS in 540 AB. Obviously Torii Hunter and Shannon Stewart have long time deals, and their exit would present public relations issues for the Twins. That leaves Jacque Jones, and Jason Kubel, the next great Twins hitting prospect. Kubel hit .377 in AA before hitting .343 in AAA. And, oh yeah, those 66 extra-base hits.

That gives us Ford, Hunter, Stewart, Jones and Kubel. Even without Kubel, the Twins would have a problem. With him makes things damn near impossible. So to make things possible, THE TWINS MUST TRADE JACQUE JONES! Ive suggested this before, but this time its mandatory. Give Johan Santana money. Give Brad Radke money. Give Joe Nathan money. And trade Jacque Jones for yet another pitcher.

Lets get back to that lineup. I know that I want Mauer playing as much as possible, but Tiffee should be playing against right-handers. So, lets say that Mauer plays third against southpaws, with Tiffee there against RH. In those situations, Mauer can play catcher, with some help from Henry Blanco (Im sorry Twins fans). Also playing will be Morneau, Rivas, Bartlett, Ford, Hunter, Kubel and Shannon Stewart at DH.

And against southpaws? Well, Blanco can go behind the plate, with Mauer at third, an outfield of Stewart-Hunter-Ford, and Matt LeCroy at DH. Kubel gets the seat since hes a 22-year-old left-handed hitting outfielder, and Tiffee also gets a rest. Michael Cuddyer could play third if Mauer is feeling bad, or second if Luis Rivas needs a rest. Hows that sound?

I assume youre confused. So, heres a good breakdown. The Twins against RH:

C- Mauer (help from Blanco?)
1B- Morneau
2B- Rivas
SS- Bartlett
3B- Tiffee
LF- Ford
CF- Hunter
RF- Kubel
DH- Stewart
UT- Cuddyer

And now against southpaws:

C- Blanco
1B- Morneau
2B- Rivas
SS- Bartlett
3B- Mauer
LF- Stewart
CF- Hunter
RF- Ford
DH- LeCroy
UT- Cuddyer.

That gives us twelve hitters for Rod Gardenhires preliminary roster, with space for two more. Theyll need another capable SS (see Nick Punto), and one more capable outfielder (see Michael Restovich). Furthermore, this provides a roster only paying Hunter and Stewart significant money.

Just imagine the Twins with Johan Santana, Brad Radke, and another solid starter. Yes, thats Kenny Williams shaking in his boots. Or Mark Buerhle, I couldnt tell.

Comments

Is moving Mauer back and forth between C and 3B really a good idea?

Jurgen--
Yes, I believe so. In this situation, the Twins are maximizing as much as possible from their offense, and prolonging Mauer's stay at catcher as long as possible. At the same time, they are preparing Mauer for a potential career move at a later time. Of course, Joe would need to be behind this plan 100%, but being the athlete he is, it shouldn't be a problem.

Bryan:

It doesn't seem like a Twins' kinda move to me.

The Twins seem to pride themselves so much on defense. I think it's the reason it took them so long to promote Morneau for good, and why Cuddyer still hasn't found a regular position. (I think Kubel's got a much better chance of sticking since he seems an above average defender. As for Rivas and Guzman... well, they have good reps even if the numbers don't back it up.)

I expect Mauer will either open the year as the everyday 3B, or he'll play the LeCroy role of DH/C.

Bryan, this might interest you...

http://www.startribune.com/stories/509/5003756.html

If you got rid of Luis Rivas and replaced him with, say, a randomly selected Double-A second baseman, those teams would look an awful lot better for it. Wait a minute, you could even just play Michael Cuddyer instead!