On March 21st, 2010 Joe Mauer made the decision to be the catcher for the Minnesota Twins for the rest of his career. As he put the pen to paper to make the eight-year, $184 million contract official, Twins fans rejoiced that Mauer would not wind up like Torii Hunter or Johan Santana—both were players that at the prime of their career were let go for almost nothing.
Fast-forward two years later, and it appears that Mauer earned something other than that massive contract: expectations.
When Mauer signed the richest deal for a catcher in the history of Major League Baseball, he put immense pressure on himself to crank out carbon copies of his 2009 season (.365 batting average, 28 home runs and 96 runs batted in). Instead, Mauer has thrown two duds since signing the contract.
There are numerous things that can be said about Mauer's willingness to play through injury, and perhaps some of them are true. However, the bold prediction I am about to make is that Joe Mauer will bounce back in 2012 and regain his All-Star status.
Prior to the 2011 season, Mauer had become a perennial All-Star with his wide array of skills. These skills are not flukes as Mauer has been putting up numbers in every season prior to 2011.
Before signing his contract extension prior to the 2010 season, Mauer had the average line of a .322 batting average, 12 HR and 66 runs batted in. Granted, those aren't massive power numbers, but Mauer isn't a typical power hitter.
Where Mauer excels is getting on base. Over those first six seasons, Mauer had an OPS over .900 three times. The three seasons that Mauer has done that, he's had an on-base percentage over .400.
People have said that Mauer has tapered off the last two seasons, but he still put together a solid statistical season in 2010 with a line of .327, nine HR and 75 RBI (not to mention an on-base percentage of .402).
The man still knows how to hit, but what could explain his huge drop-off?
Mauer has vowed to come to spring training ready to catch next year, which raised some eyebrows among fans wondering why he wasn't able to be healthy in the first place.
A reason for this is because Mauer is getting old. Yes, he's only 28 years old, but he has caught a ton of games for the Twins over his career. Twins fans get tired of hearing it, but catching is the most demanding position on the diamond. When Mauer plays 120 games there, it might not affect him while he's young, but as he gets older, he'll have to adjust.
With Mauer planning on spending more time on strengthening his legs, it may mean that Mauer could get his power stroke back. I'm not banking on Mauer to hit 28 home runs like in 2009, but if he can hit 15 it would go a long way in helping the Twins.
Some of you may have just fallen out of your chair laughing, but let me explain myself. I know it's hard to wipe the taste of 2011 out of your mouth in terms of the Joe Mauer injuries. It got so bad that the Twitter account @TrippingOlney started #JOEMAUERINJURIES. Trust me, it's worth your time to check this out.
Anyways, the numbers say that these notions are false. Mauer has played in over 130 games in five of his eight seasons. In addition, Mauer has caught in 771 of his 918 career games played.
That means he's caught 83 percent of the games he's played in. That makes it seem like last year was an aberration. If he can continue playing in most of the team's games, Mauer's numbers will have to go up because of sheer volume and opportunity.
One of the important storylines of 2011 was the use of Joe Mauer at first base. This was something that many experts had predicted once Mauer signed his extension. However, it was assumed that this would happen later in his career—not at age 28. However, it's not a bad thing to have Mauer play all over the place.
There were times where moving Mauer from behind the plate would hurt the Twins offense, but those days should be long gone. While the Twins are still expected to carry Drew Butera, they signed Ryan Doumit as well to handle some of the catching duties. While Doumit can't match Mauer's numbers behind the plate, he's less of a drop-off from Mauer to Butera.
This will allow the Twins to throw Mauer out at different positions more regularly, and as a result Mauer will be able to stay in the lineup even if he can't catch.
Mauer wasn't the only Twin who battled through injuries last year. Justin Morneau played injured almost the entire year with a bad neck and wrist Morneau also suffered another season-ending concussion in September. Simply put, Morneau was not the 2006 AL Most Valuable Player in 2011.
However, if all goes well with his recovery for his second major concussion in 14 months, Morneau should be able to strike more fear into opposing pitchers than his replacements did. While Michael Cuddyer is a good player, he doesn't have the same impact that Morneau has on the lineup.
With a healthy Morneau hitting behind Mauer, pitchers will try to blow fastballs by Mauer in fear of facing Morneau with runners on base. More fastballs down the middle of the plate should mean more swings for Mauer. If Mauer can connect with some of these fastballs, there could be a return to Mauer's 2009 form.
Kevin Butler in a Speedo must have really scarred Joe Mauer over the past couple of seasons.
One of the perks of being an exceptional pro athlete is that sometimes you're asked to be on the cover of a video game. Of course, your first reaction to this is "That's sweet!" But as the Madden franchise has shown, athletes who grace the cover tend to be cursed.
The Mauer drop-off coincides with Mauer's face being put on the cover of The Show. I'm not asking you to believe in superstitions, but having your mug on a game might put added pressure on you to perform.
Being off the cover of The Show will mean that Mauer will have to make less appearances to promote the game. That would, hopefully, lead to Mauer focusing more on baseball during the offseason and his numbers would go up as a result.
Some people questioned why Joe Nathan would leave the Minnesota Twins. After all, this was the team that gave Nathan his first opportunity to be a closer. It was also the team that rewarded him lucratively for his efforts. Minnesota was very good to Joe Nathan—why leave?
It could be that the team's $23 million leader spent more time nursing his injuries rather than being on the field.
By signing that huge contract, Mauer, whether he likes it or not, became the de facto team leader. Mauer will never be a guy who gets in someone's face, but if he could have played through some of his injuries maybe Nathan would have had a different outlook on the team's future and stayed.
A big season by Mauer should be motivating because Mauer can't afford to have a mutiny inside his own clubhouse. If that happens, more people will be following Joe Nathan's lead and headed toward greener pastures.
One of the problems athletes find when they sign large contracts is that the team doesn't have the money to spend to get free agents to help them. The other factor is what if these free agents don't want to play there period?
This could happen if Mauer has another lackluster season. Free agents are in the same position that Mauer is in, without the pressure. When a free agent looks at a team, they usually ask themselves if the pieces are there to help them succeed. It's almost a given that a player would rather play with 2009 Joe Mauer than 2011 Joe Mauer.
A bounce-back season could help the Twins attract an ace or another middle-of-the-lineup hitter that could take some of the pressure off Mauer to carry this team. It is beneficial for Mauer to have a good season.
Behold! The Joe Mauer fan club! It's almost an illustration of how Joe Mauer must feel when it comes to his relationship with the fans. A couple years ago, the thought of a Joe Mauer statue in front of Target Field would have been welcomed with open arms. Today, Twins fans aren't as kind to the "Baby Jesus."
Over the first couple of years, Mauer couldn't go wrong with Twins fans. It was Minnesotans' version of Aaron Rodgers: a likeable athlete who was elite and couldn't really be cheered against.
Mauer has lost some of that luster in the past couple of seasons, and some think he has taken the NBA superstar approach after he cashed in his big payday. Mauer needs to show Twins fans that he's willing to give it his all for this team to win a World Series.
If he doesn't, things could get ugly in Minnesota next summer.
Joe Mauer was a can't-miss Hall of Famer two years ago. Now, that seems more in doubt. If Mauer has a third consecutive off year, people will start to question how great he really is. They'll also call the 2009 season and his three batting titles a fluke.
Instead of the Hall of Fame, Mauer will join the "Hall of Not Good Enough."
Some of the greatest athletes in sports are at their best when they're under pressure to perform. Mauer is at that point. If Mauer can bounce back to his previous form, it will not only go a long way toward helping the Twins contend in the American League Central, it will help himself as well.