Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Is the Twins Catcher’s position an area of need?
At first glance, this question seems like it is straight out of left field. In fact, anyone who tuned out early from the most recent 90 loss Minnesota Twins season might think this is a crazy and unnecessary question. Joe Mauer is 30 years old, just won his 5th Silver Slugger, and is under contract for another 5 years; why would the Twins need help at the catcher spot? Well if against all odds you didn’t know, on August 20th, Mauer was placed on the 7 day disabled list with concussion-like symptoms and didn’t return for the rest of the year. With only a few, seemingly harmless foul tips off the mask, the future of the Twins backstop plans were thrown into serious doubt. Now, after a few months of intrigue and debate about a position switch, Joe Mauer will no longer catch for the Minnesota Twins.
If Mauer had suffered a leg injury and needed surgery, everything probably would have stayed the same. Joe has come back from injury many times in his career, never really missing an offensive step once he gets healthy again. But now he has a head injury and Minnesota fans don’t need to be reminded of the heart breaking effect that a concussion had on beloved Justin Morneau. Not a single person, medical expert or not, can predict how Mauer will return from his concussion, but it is widely understood that once you’ve suffered from one concussion it is easier to get more. Sticking Mauer, and the $115 million he is stilled owed, in baseball’s most dangerous position couldn’t be justified.
Where do the Twins go from here? With doubt spreading through the Minnesota Twins organization about Mauer’s future health, Josmil Pinto stepped up in a big way during his September call-up of 21 games. After hitting a “Joe-Like” .342/.398/.963 (Avg./OBP/SLG), he looks like a viable candidate for the 2014 starting catcher job. However, with only 19 games at Triple A under his belt, Pinto still needs plenty of big-league seasoning at the position. Anecdotally, Pinto is still learning how to catch and call games from behind the plate. Pinto almost certainly can’t sustain the offensive numbers he put up in September over a full season so that makes the defensive nuances of catching even more important. Also, considering he would be working with the less than stellar Twins starting rotation, he has his work cut out for him.
The Twins would be well served to try and bring in a defensive whiz catcher along the likes of Jose Molina (or someone like Drew Butera but not helpless with a bat) on a cheap, one year contract. If they find a player who has historically been a very good mentor to younger catchers, gobble him up. Pinto is still young and learning and could only benefit from having another guy like that around, in addition to Mauer who should and will lend his own advice. Signing a cheap, strictly catcher (unlike versatility guys Ryan Doumit or Chris Herrmann who could continue backup roles) could give the Twins the option to start Pinto in Triple A to refine his craft every game, instead of spot starts, under less pressure. Then when Pinto is ready, he could join the big league club as the starting catcher, and the new free agent catcher can back Pinto up. Since the FA catcher would be cheap and doesn’t need at bats every day to stay sharp, he doesn’t just go to waste on the bench.
I think it would be a mistake to try and sign a big free agent catcher like Brian McCann to a long term deal. Terry Ryan shouldn’t panic and try to immediately replace Joe’s numbers behind the plate because Josmil Pinto has the makeup to thrive as a catcher. As long as he continues to develop on defense and doesn’t replicate Chris Parmelee’s career path after his hot 2011 September, Pinto will ease the Mauer transition to first base. The Twins might not get MVP numbers from behind the plate again but hey, maybe they will. Optimism is key.
On one end I am very sad that #7 will no longer be playing catcher. It means the Twins
have HAD the best catcher in baseball. But on the other hand, the Twins needed a first baseman and now they don’t have to rely on Parmelee or Chris Colabello anymore to fill that void. Making a decision so early in the offseason means that Mauer can focus his entire offseason on playing first base, practicing taking ground balls and low throws from his new position. The decision also gives Terry Ryan more time to solidify the catcher position, hopefully with a smart veteran signing. The Minnesota Twins will be just fine and I, for one, am excited to see Mauer playing first base at the 2014 All-Star Game in Target Field!