2011 Minnesota Twins Analysis: Is Mauer the Problem? What to Do with Nishioka?

Dan AdamsCorrespondent ISeptember 8, 2011

Does Nishioka deserve a second opportunity in 2012 because of his leg injury or have the Twins seen enough?
Does Nishioka deserve a second opportunity in 2012 because of his leg injury or have the Twins seen enough?Harry How/Getty Images

It was only five months ago when the Minnesota Twins had realistic thoughts of taking the next step in the American League playoffs and contending for their first World Series Championship in 20 years. Early in September, the team is in a serious swoon, that has caused multiple people within the organization to doubt the clubs decisions since the resignation of Terry Ryan as General Manager.

Although the Twins have won six division championships since Ron Gardenhire took over as manager, the club has been horrendous in the playoffs. In his first postseason series as manager, Gardenhire led the Twins to a 3-2 series victory over the Oakland Athletics. From that point forward, the Twins have had nothing but talented teams derailed by giant payrolls from the American League East. They have accumulated a record of 3-19 in the playoffs since that initial series victory.  

After the 2010 season it was apparent that they could not compete with the New York Yankees. Changes had to be made. The problem is that they botched each and every decision leading into the 2011 season. In this article, I plan to analyze each decision the team needs to make moving into next season and what the Minnesota Twins should do.


No. 1 - Tsuyoshi Nishioka (Acquired from the Chiba Lotte Marines - Japanese Pacific League)

Games played through Sept. 6th - 67

Games missed due to injury or managers decision - 60

Contract: $5 million buyout to Chiba Lotte, MLB Contract 3 years/$9.25 million

For a club that prides itself on being completely solid fundamentally, the team took a huge risk when they bought the rights to negotiate with Tsuyoshi Nishioka of Japan. For a team that has not dabbled in Far East baseball, the Twins made a bold move with the acquisition of the batting champion of the Japanese Pacific League. In 2010 he batted .346 in 596 at bats as the Chiba Lotte Marines leadoff hitter. He also added 11 HR, 32 2B, 59 RBI, 79 BB's, an OBP of .423 and 22 SB in 144 games. Nishioka also led the NBL with 121 runs scored and 287 total bases. 

All statistics on paper lead to his high expectations. But comparing a foreign professional league to Major League Baseball (MLB) is extremely difficult. There has been a high success story in the case of Ichiro and Hideki Matsui, but there has also been numerous unsuccessful attempts to convert Japanese baseball players which include the sad stories of Hideki Irabu, Kazuhito Tadano, and Hideki Okakima among many more. 

The problem with Nishioka is his fundamentals as a middle infielder are completely under developed. For instance, in his first road series against the New York Yankees, Nick Swisher slid into second base to disrupt a tailor-made double-play ball. Nishioka's lack of awareness led to him breaking his leg, throwing a complete wrench into his rookie season with the Twins. After missing 60 games, he returned to bat .225 over 67 games, and the team has compiled a record of 29-35 when Nishioka starts. His lack of fundamentals continue to be apparent as he has committed 11 errors in his 65 games in the field.

Dr. Dan's Solution to the problem

The Twins have a pickle with Nishioka and he might be one of the most difficult decisions of the offseason. Due to his broken leg situation and his notable nervousness entering this season, Nishioka gets one mulligan.

Now where they put him on defense is another issue that can be solved with acquiring a legitimate middle infielder in the offseason. In the case they don't and roll with the same crew that trudged through this season, Nishioka is your shortstop. If he can't improve his fundamentals defensively while at the same time improving his on-base percentage at the plate during the first two months next year, he either gets optioned to AAA or given the option to go back home. Either way, the clock is now ticking on Nishy and he doesn't have a whole lot of wiggle room moving forward.


No. 2 - Justin Morneau (Acquired via the 1999 MLB Amateur Draft - 3rd Round)

Games played through Sept. 6th - 69

Games missed due to injury or managers decision - 72

Contract: Signed through 2013, MLB Contract 6 years/$80 million

After being a staple in the lineup so often early in his career, Justin Morneau had set an example for all his teammates and had began to establish himself among the best power hitters in the American League. A late season injury in 2009 led to Michael Cuddyer replacing him at first base. Cuddyer thrived and led the the team to a division title. 

2010 was primed to be a big year for Morneau moving into his new ballpark, Target Field, and building off of a 2009 he would rather forget more than anything. The 2006 American League MVP had returned to form during the first-half of 2010. Not only that—he had returned with a big bang. Morneau, who set career highs with a batting average of .321 and 34 home runs in 2006, had taken his game to the next level last year. He opened up the season batting .345 with 18 home runs, 56 RBIs, 50 walks, and an OPS of 1.055 through 81 games.

July 7th, 2010, may have been one of the worst days in recent Minnnesota Twins memory. It looked completely innocent as Morneau slid into second base and was bumped in the head by a knee. A history of concussions came into the spotlight following his extended period of time on the disabled list and has lingered on and on as we wrap up the 2011 season. Although the concussion problem appeared to have calmed itself down when Morneau returned to the lineup at long last, he found himself back on the DL for 55 games in mid-summer. Supposedly it was a neck injury, wrist injury, and a combination of concussion symptoms that continued to give him problems. So what did he do? He had another surgery, this time on his neck to repair a pinched nerve.

It was just recently revealed that the slugger from Canada has continued to struggle with concussion problems—on Labor Day he was suffering from a headache again. Not only that, he has shoulder issues, nerve issues, and a lot of medical problems that leave his status up in the air.

Dr. Dan's Solution

2012 is pretty much a contract year for Morneau and it wouldn't surprise me if the slugger is completely healthy and puts up MVP-esque numbers in search of his last major contract as a professional athlete. His concussion issues no-doubt will cost him some serious dollars considering one pitch, one bump, one tag, or anything could end his season or possibly his career.

Depending on the quality of the baseball team, if Morneau puts up huge numbers during the first-half and is healthy, then the time has come for Twins fans to move on and Justin Morneau should be dealt for some young talent. If the team is in first place, Morneau is healthy, and everything seems to be going the right direction then Bill Smith will have to consider re-signing Morneau at a Mauer-like figure to keep him around. Would the Twins be willing to tie up 40-45 percent of their payroll in two players that spend more time on the DL than they do at the plate?


No. 3 - Joe Mauer (Acquired via the 2002 MLB Amateur Draft - 1st Round, 1st Pick)

Games played through Sept. 6th - 75

Games missed due to injury or managers decision - 66

Contract: Signed through 2018, MLB Contract 8 years/$184 million

The first season into his new contract that earns him $23 million per season was a complete disaster. The tag as the best catcher in baseball is beginning to slip for the local superstar in Minnesota. Mauer is beginning to wear out his welcome with Twins fans, and the catcher has the reputation of being extremely soft. What do the Twins do at this point?

Mauer is quickly earning the label as the most overpaid player in the league. Target Field doesn't help his power figures, but neither does the fact that Mauer can't stay on the field. He has some of the most peculiar injuries heard of in baseball today. He has missed a significant amount of time with bilateral leg weakness and flu-like symptoms—sounds like a player with an extremely soft mental make-up, and significant leadership issues.

The Cretin-Derham Hall (St. Paul, MN) graduate will always get support from local fans for his past success with the Minnesota Twins, but fans need to start being realistic. What has Mauer done for the Twins? If you are happy with division championships and batting titles than you have your player of the future. It has come to a point where Joe Mauer needs to make a serious decision about his future because the Twins are locked into him.

First, Joe needs to decide if he wants to shorten his career in the playing field. If he wants to continue catching, he knows that he will be a designated-hitter for a significant portion of the latter half of his career. Unless he adds a consistent power game to his repertoire than he will have trouble finding an everyday job when his catching days have passed him by.

Dabbling at first-base and right-field are different than making a career change. He needs to completely commit to it if that's what he is going to do. With Morneau on the team, the most realistic option would be outfield at this point. Personally, I feel for Joe because I think he is a great catcher, and good catchers want to catch. I know he doesn't want to switch positions and I can't blame him. He has been doing it forever and I can personally attest that catching is an art, and once you become very good at it, you never want to let it go. There is no doubt in my mind that Mauer wants to catch. The Twins hold the rights to his contract and they need to talk with him and decide what's best. Here's the major issue, they can find an outfielder with skills as good as Joe Mauer, but they can't find a catcher.

Dr. Dan's Antidote

They need to let Joe catch if that's what Joe wants to do. Catchers are catchers and you can't take that away from him unless he wants to let it go. Mike Piazza caught forever because it is extremely hard to give up, and there comes a time when you love calling the game for the pitcher and love being involved pitch-by-pitch. The Twins will stick with Joe because they have no choice. His average numbers will bounce back, but his power numbers are T.B.A. Both Mauer and Morneau need to call Cal Ripken Jr. and ask him what it's like to be a baseball player. It drives me crazy that Mauer needs a day here and there. Now that he can play outfield, he should never "NEED" a day.


No. 4 - Jason Kubel (Acquired via the 12th round of 2000 MLB Amateur Draft)

Games played through Sept. 7th - 94

Games missed due to injury or managers decision - 48

Contract: Signed through 2011, MLB Contract 3 yrs/$12.1M

Jason Kubel's free-agency moving into 2012 could be collateral damage that could have a serious affect on the Twins lineup. Kubel started the 2011 campaign on a tear and, had he not injured his leg in late May, he was on pace to become an All-Star in July. He is the sole reason the Twins don't have the worst record in all of baseball.

The question with the left-hander has always been his inability to play well in the field. His left-handed bat is unquestionably extremely valuable to the Twins in the bottom-half of their order. It also seems like Kubel and Morneau feed off each other's success in the Twins lineup.

Dr. Dan's Antidote

As sad is it might sound, the Twins are going to have to make some long-term decisions in their outfield. With Delmon Young gone to Detroit, that leaves Ben Revere who has basically locked up his role in center field, Denard Span who will likely move to left if he can get healthy, and a combination of Michael Cuddyer, Kubel, and yes, I said it, Joe Mauer.

The Twins need the power in their lineup. Re-signing Kubel is a must.


No. 5 - Denard Span (Acquired as the 20th pick of the 2000 MLB Amateur Draft)

Games played through Sept. 7th - 94

Games missed due to injury or managers decision - 48

Contract: Signed through 2011, MLB Contract 3 yrs/$12.1M

Denard Span has been a key cog in the Twins lineup during their past two division titles, but there is a big problem, he continues to take great pitches right down the middle and his average has steadily declined as teams have learned how to pitch him.

Now the head problems have become a huge factor in his career. His teammates' softness and willingness to come out of the lineup for health reasons have rubbed off on the leadoff man. His transformation has been more negative then positive. He has seemed to grow more of a cockiness and attitude that he did not completely earn. It was proven when he folded up his season after he realized that Ben Revere is simply a better center fielder and leadoff man than he is.  

Denard Span is a Major League baseball player, there is no doubt about that. His future as the Twins long-term solution as leadoff hitter is over. He will have to adapt to his new role. To be honest, with Ben Revere leading off, Denard Span could be the  No. 2 hitter in the lineup that the Twins have been missing for a decade. They could never find someone to play that role and if Span can come back healthy, the Twins can go Revere, Span, Mauer, Cuddyer, Morneau, Kubel, and Valencia—seven of the nine cogs needed for a successful team are there if they can stay healthy.

Dr. Dan's Solution

As I already stated, Span is the starting left-fielder for this team if he can take care of his concussion issues and get himself right mentally. He seems to have a lot on his mind and it's very obvious he lets it affect his job while at the plate and in the field. He is a very overrated defender; while he makes every routine play, he makes no good to great plays. He gets to the ball a lot of the time but then panics and drops it or he doesn't dive. Maybe it has to do with his mental problems. I hope they can be solved. Denard it's time to talk to Dr. Phil because Dr. Dan and none of your teammates, coaches, or trainers can help you.


What will happen in 2012?

Truthfully, I have no idea just like no one else will have a clue until this team starts to get healthy and grow a sack. I have never seen so many "soft" baseball players on one roster in my life. I feel terrible for Carl Pavano, Michael Cuddyer and even Danny Valencia. They are the baseball players on this team. The rest of them I will leave the T.B.A. connotation next to their names.

They say that teams take on the identity of their manager and if that's the case, who is Ron Gardenhire? They say he is a player's manager and it is obviously apparent at this point, his players are not paying him back the respect and leeway that he allows them to have throughout the season.

The Twins may need a reality check and an old school manager to wake them up a little bit. It's said that Tom Kelly still works with the organization. Maybe he could do it. No, no. I'm wrong. That's Gardy's job. He needs to get into these guys for once and stop protecting them. Take a note from Ozzie Guillen and bash your players in the media. Criticize them, don't just protect them for the sake of not hurting their feelings. If the Twins want to win next year, the first step in making that happen is an attitude adjustment. The ballclub needs baseball players not pansies who want a day off here or there because they're hurt. Either you're hurt or your injured, make up your mind.