Note: I will be posting a few articles that I have recently written to get my blog running. This column was originally posted 5/24/09 at Ballpark Banter.
When you say Minnesota, I think blizzard, Mall of America, and funny, drawn out accents. In that order.
What doesn’t necessarily spring to the forefront of my mind is the best player in baseball, and I can’t believe I am even uttering those words after watching that guy in St. Louis continually amaze the baseball world year after year.
A month ago, I would have confidently bet my lifenot my savings, not my house, my life that nobody would be better than Mr. Pujols, at least not while he was still playing, partly because I don’t think Pujols would settle for that.
But we can officially say it is a debate, because my gosh, Joe Mauer is becoming the most magnificent all-around ballplayer in the game today, and we would never notice if we didn’t dig through the highlights to locate those Twins way up there in the North.
Granted, this isn’t a revelation, because it is not as if Mauer has caught anybody by surprise with this ridiculous month of May he is having.
Since making his 2009 debut on May 1 after missing the first month of the season due to a frightening back pain that was caused by inflammation of the right sacroiliac joint at the base of the spine, Mauer is hitting .429 with 10 home runs and a 1.360 OPS.
We always knew Mauer was a great hitter, possessing possibly the sweetest stroke in the sport, and we knew that he was a great catcher, winning his first Gold Glove behind the dish last season.
In 2006, Mauer became the first catcher in major league history to lead all of baseball in batting average (.347), and the first American League catcher to win the batting title. In ’08, Mauer altered his resume by becoming the first A.L. catcher to win the batting title twice.
One more, and Mauer has the podium to himself. With his second title, Mauer joined Hall of Famer Ernie Lombardi as the only catchers in history to win two batting titles. Lombardi did it with the Cincinnati Reds in ’38, and the Boston Braves in ’42. It’s a select company, especially considering that only one other catcher has ever won a batting title. That would be Eugene “Bubbles” Hargrave who won it in 1926 with the Reds.
A great defensive catcher who sprays balls from foul line to foul line is enough, right? Absolutely, and that is why you haven’t heard anybody criticize Mauer since he broke into the big leagues. In an era of feeble-swinging backstops, Mauer is a jewela GM’s dream.
But even amidst all of the greatness Mauer has put on display, there was one thing missing, and that was the pop. Scouts always say that power is the last thing to come as a young hitter develops, and that could still be the case with Mauer as he only turned 26 on Apr. 19.
Since 2005Mauer’s first full season in the big leagues he has hit 9, 13, 7, and 9 homers, respectively. Ten homers from a catcher who is contending for batting titles, walking more than he strikes out, and playing premium defense, is outstanding.
Except if you are Joe Mauer, that is. If you’re Mauer, you aren’t compared to normal standards, if only because your talent automatically places you in a separate realm. We look at Mauer’s 6’5”, 225-pound frame and drool at the potential.
This is a guy with quick hands, an unbelievably short stroke, and hand-eye coordination that is only bestowed upon folklore legends. How good is Mauer? He struck out once in his entire high school career.
Taking Mauer as he has been thus far in his career is like cruising the freeway in an Aston Martin, gliding along at 90 mph with minimal amount of pressure on the gas pedal. It’s wonderful, it’s a thrill, there’s absolutely nothing to complain about, but you’re still not going full throttle on the autobahn like you should be with a ride that sweet.
After Mauer hit his 10th home run of the season Sunday evening against the Milwaukee Brewers, it appears that he might be ready to crush the speed limit. Mauer has done more on the power side in one month than he did in his entire ’08 season, and there’s reason to believe that it is more than simply a power surge.
Will Mauer be a 30-35 homer guy? Probably not, but there is no reason that he shouldn’t be a 20-25 homer guy with a swing that creates as much bat speed as his does.
If Mauer does indeed dig the long ball these days, this provides the Twins with an even more daunting middle of the order, a run through Mauer, Justin Morneau, and Michael Cuddyer that will pummel A.L. Central pitching staffs.
The Twins are going to be in the hunt for the division when August and September arrivesRon Gardenhire always finds a way to get his boys ready there and merely a solid effort from the pitching staff will get them there.
Can Nick Blackburn and Kevin Slowey continue to anchor the rotation while Francisco Liriano attempts to find his way back to pre-surgery form? Scott Baker can only improve on his 6.98 ERA, but will Glen Perkins give the Twins enough value from the back end of the rotation to prevent them from being desperate for pitching at the trade deadline?
There are some questions on this staff that will have to be answered over the next couple of months, but the Twins know they have Joe Nathan at the back of the bullpen to save games, something he has done over 100 times in his last three seasons.
All of this comes with the fact that Minnesota ranks fourth in the American League in runs scored while carrying the corpses of Nick Punto, Joe Crede, and Carlos Gomez. None of those guys are hitting .300 anytime soon, but they should improve enough to complement the Mauer-Morneau-Cuddyer trio.
But the A.L. Central isn’t as strong this season, and getting Joe Mauer back suddenly gives the Twins an advantage that none of their opponents can claim.
And if we are talking about this Joe Mauer, the sweet-swinging slugger, not the singles machine, there’s no other team in baseball that can say they have a weapon like that.
If you are still snoring, this is your wake-up call. There’s a guy in Minnesota who is making the leap from special to legendary, and it’s time we take notice.
My money says, in 15 years, we won’t be thinking of Mike Piazza as the greatest offensive catcher in baseball history.
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