Not surprisingly, our athletic, superstar catcher -- yes, the same guy that could have played D1 football in Florida, was pretty darn good at basketball, and apparently is a respectable golfer and bowler, as well -- didn't embarrass himself at first base last night in Chicago. He committed no errors, made a couple nice plays in the field, and also was 3-for-5 with 2 RBIs. All in all, a good night. Now that Mauer ha cleared this first hurdle, it raises the larger and more imminent question: Where exactly do we go from here?
Justin Morneau is out at least until the beginning of August, and perhaps longer. That leaves at least a few weeks worth of games where Morneau will be unavailable to play first. Mauer, for his part, apparently views the move as both temporary and rare, saying "Like I said, the manager asked me to go over there and play, and I did tonight, and I had fun doing it. But I'm a catcher, and I think sometimes we lose track of that. That's what I'm here to do." Forgive us, Joe, if we have "lost track" of that; maybe it's because you didn't play a game at catcher for 2 of the first 3 months of the season?
If Joe Mauer is sincere about doing whatever it takes to help his team win and get back in the AL Central race (and I would like to think he is), here is what I think should happen until Morneau makes it back: Of the 5 starting pitchers, Mauer should catch for 3. This seems to be about all he can handle right now, anyway, and this will hopefully keep his legs fresh enough so that he is productive in the event the Twins are playing meaningful games in September. Ideally, on one of the other two days, he can play first base, and on the other of the two days, he can DH or sit, as the case may be. So that adds up to: 60 percent catcher; 20 percent first base; and hopefully a split of approximately 10 percent DHing and 10 percent sitting. This mix, which will of course be unnecessary when Morneau returns, also will allow Cuddyer to play more right field, a position at which he is much more comfortable, and where his good arm is of more use.
As far as which particular pitchers Mauer catches, I could care less. I really don't think that Carl Pavano deserves a personal catcher, but the way things have gone thus far, Pavano can have his way and have Butera catch his starts; perhaps Liriano can have Butera or Rivera, as well. Butera and Rivera are absolutely pathetic with a bat, so this is far from an ideal situation, but if Joe begins swinging well, I want his bat in the lineup as often as possible.
Further, easing Mauer into the idea of playing another position now, in 2011, is going to make the inevitable conversation that takes place in 2012 or 2013 that much easier for the front office and Gardy. The Twins are establishing a precedent now that Joe Mauer is not exclusively a catcher, and that he is a versatile athlete who will play wherever his manager directs him to play.
I have long since given up on the notion that Joe Mauer will be worth $23 million annually for his play on the field. Few of these contracts are ever really worth it to the team. I still think signing him was the right thing to do, though. Now, the focus should be on maximizing Mauer's value. He (hopefully) has several years left as an elite hitter, but now we know that his years as a youthful, vibrant catching phenom are past. The best value from the Twins' standpoint is to take advantage of the fact that Mauer, when healthy, can bat close to .350. They can find a place, or places, on the field for him in the future. To destroy part of his value now by acquiescing to his statements that he is "here to catch" will be a disservice both to Mauer and to the organization.