Another autumn arrives and the Minnesota Twins have been out of the playoff picture since early August. The lack of consistent hitting, fielding and pitching took the luster off of the team before the State Fair, but this wasn’t a surprise. The team has been mired in an ugly, four-year, 90-plus loss per season skid. There are many reasons for the Twins’ mess, but there’s one that has gone unaddressed for too long: the organization’s obsession with Joe Mauer.
Joe Mauer is a sensational baseball player. He’s an important cog for a successful lineup, a guy who gets hits, usually singles and doubles. Even though he’s had one of his worst years statistically, he still brings more good than bad. On a team like Detroit or Anaheim, he’d be a key player in a deep playoff run, but when you create a lineup where Mauer is called on to be the primary power, you get diminishing returns. When he was a catcher, and healthy, he was the best in the game, but he still has yet to show anywhere near the same ability at first base. But this is not about him. It’s about the people in Minnesota Twins’ front office and the their fixation with him.
The Twins drafted the “hometown kid” back in 2001, and in 2004 he made his major league debut. In the years to follow, Mauer was a monster when healthy, particularly 2006 to 2010.
A ‘keep Mauer at all costs’ mentality
In 2010, the Twins and Mauer signed a contract extension. That contract, with $23 million a year guaranteed, had an eight-year length. That seemed excessive for an oft-injured catcher, but a length justified by those in the Twins’ front office, who insisted they were staving off any other organization from plucking him away. The team seemed to be bidding against themselves, eventually getting a contract years longer than any other team would’ve likely considered. It felt as though there was a palatable desperation; a “keep Mauer at all costs” mentality.
The Minnesota Twins have focused a large portion of the team’s direction solely around Joe Mauer. They got him up to the majors and immediately placed him in all of the team’s imaging. In the beginning, it was team-centered marketing, but eventually it became Joe Mauer and ‘the rest.’ The team successfully created a whole bunch of Joe Mauer fans who liked the Twins, instead of Twins fans who liked Joe Mauer. The 2010 contract negotiations hinted the team couldn’t afford to lose him on many levels.
When an organization or league becomes centered around one individual, a vacuum is created, but the problem with baseball is you can’t have a single-player vacuum and win.
Roster includes a bunch of ‘Who?’
Of course we should have kept Mauer. I’m not saying there aren’t other glaring mistakes the team has made, and we can’t say either way what a player would have done if they would’ve stayed, but one reality hangs over this team. Over the years, we have seen a lot of players leave (Johan Santana, Torii Hunter, Michael Cuddyer, Justin Morneau, Kyle Loshe, Joe Nathan, Jason Bartlett, Francisco Liriano, Matt Garza, Pat Neshak, Denard Span, Delmon Young, Nick Punto, Jose Mijares, Craig Breslow, R.A. Dickey, Wilson Ramos, Jim Thome, J.J. Hardy, Danny Valencia, Scott Baker, Ben Revere, Josh Willingham, Carlos Gomez), yet not a lot of replacement value has come into the organization. You need at least six or seven quality position players, three good starting pitchers, two above average middle relievers and a closer to have the foundation for success in baseball. The current Twins roster is Mauer, 1¾ starting pitchers, below average middle relief, a closer, four or five serviceable players, and a bunch of “Who?”
They opened Target Field, a stadium the Twins said they needed to be able to compete, in 2010. Ownership has made a mint from relatively full stadiums, but the money not going to Mauer doesn’t seem to be destined for the team payroll. Phil Hughes, the MVP of the team this season, came one out away from getting a $500K bonus he deserved for the amount of innings pitched this season, but failed when a rain delay cost him. I hope the team antes up and give Hughes what he deserves, but regardless, I have little doubt if the same scenario happened to Joe Mauer, they would have met him on the rainy field with cameras and a big check.
The Minnesota Twins are years away from competing, but at least they can breathe easy as the face of the floundering franchise is set for seasons to come.
Matthew McNeil is the host of The Morning Grind morning show on AM 950, from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m.
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