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Twins are right to shut down Mauer, wrong to keep him at catcher

REUTERS/Eric Miller
I've spent a decade writing about how much of Mauer's value comes from catching and have always argued against a position switch, but the question has changed and the old answers cease to apply.

Joe Mauer continues to have post-concussion symptoms more than a month after suffering a brain injury, so Monday the Twins shut him down for the final week of the season. Mauer hasn’t played since taking a foul ball off the mask on Aug. 19 and experienced setbacks when he tried to ramp up workouts during the past few weeks, with Phil Miller of the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune writing that he “still feels sensitivity to light and noises, and has trouble outside confined spaces.”

Shutting him down is absolutely the correct decision, and by the time spring training rolls around, Mauer will be six months removed from the concussion, but sadly as the Twins and so many other teams have learned in recent years, there are no guarantees with brain injuries.

And now, much like with Justin Morneau and Denard Span, the only thing the Twins can really do is wait and hold their breath hoping that time and rest do the trick. In making Monday’s announcement, both Mauer and general manager Terry Ryan stressed that they expect him to remain at catcher next season, but whereas that seemed like a questionable stance at the time of the concussion last month, it now seems borderline crazy to me.

I’ve spent a decade writing about how much of Mauer’s value comes from catching and have always argued against a position switch, but the question has changed and the old answers cease to apply.

There’s no way to stop a catcher from taking foul balls off the mask on a regular basis, along with all the other physical dangers that come with the position, and if he were to suffer another brain injury it might be too late to avoid major long-term consequences on and off the field.

As a first baseman, Mauer’s odds of remaining an elite player into his mid-30s are much lower, but he’d still provide plenty of value there and Josmil Pinto is a potential replacement with upside. (Note: I went into a lot more depth analyzing the Mauer position switch decision last month.)

• There seems to be considerable disagreement within the organization about how much focus to put on acquiring pitching via free agency. Nick Nelson of Twins Daily wrote a breakdown of the situation, with the short version being that Ron Gardenhire is basically begging for rotation help and owner Jim Pohlad says he’s willing to spend big for reinforcements, all while Ryan downplays free agency, much like he did last winter before settling for Kevin Correia and Mike Pelfrey.

Every team would love to build a rotation full of young, cheap pitchers, and for many years the Twins did that well enough to avoid having to swim into the deep end of the free agency pool. And generally speaking, free agent pitching is typically overpriced and requires making risky long-term commitments to players on the wrong side of 30. However, their current lack of MLB-ready arms with more than back-of-the-rotation upside makes Ryan’s usual approach a tough one to pull off.

Despite his rookie struggles, Kyle Gibson still has a chance to develop into more than a fourth or fifth starter, and Alex Meyer remains a potential top-of-the-rotation starter if he can stay healthy, but neither can be counted on to make a huge 2014 impact, and even if they do, surrounding them with the likes of Correia, Scott Diamond, Vance Worley and Samuel Deduno is going to leave the rotation well short of decent.

Last season, Twins starters had the second-worst ERA in baseball at 5.40, and this season Twins starters have the worst ERA in baseball at 5.26. Based on those numbers and the in-house options on who can realistically be rotation members in 2014, there’s little chance of building even an average rotation without bringing in outside help. Ryan would surely prefer trades to free agency, but my fear is that his real plan involves a third straight season with a terrible rotation on the cheap.

• One of my frequent complaints about Gardenhire is his unwillingness to platoon hitters, which he’s basically never done. Most prominently Jacque Jones and Jason Kubel played no matter the pitcher, but versus lefties Jones hit .231/.286/.355 and Kubel hit .239/.313/.365. For a more recent example on the other side of the plate, Trevor Plouffe plays no matter the pitcher, despite hitting .223/.280/.381 off righties.

And there are no shortage of maddening day-to-day examples. Many of the best managers in baseball history regularly employed platoons and current examples in Gardenhire’s own league include former Manager of the Year winners Joe Maddon of the Rays, Bob Melvin of the A’s and Buck Showalter of the Orioles. It’s hardly a new-school approach and it’s hardly a complicated thing to make sense of, yet Gardenhire has never budged and said the following when asked about it by Mike Berardino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

I don’t recall ever having a platoon. I’m not against it. I’ll tell you that. I wouldn’t have a problem having a platoon if it fits. If it makes sense numbers-wise and it works, then you go with it.

“I don’t recall ever having a platoon” and “I’m not against it” are statements that don’t fit together coming from a manager in his 12th season on the job. Gardenhire may not be against it in theory, but his actions over nearly 2,000 games have certainly shown that he’s very much against it in practice, despite having plenty of opportunities to improve the lineup via platooning. And for his part, Ryan told Berardino that he’s fine with the manager’s lack of platooning:

I don’t think he likes to platoon players at all. I don’t either. Put guys out there that are everyday players, then you don’t have to platoon. You’re always looking for players that can play 162 games, right? That’s what I’m looking for. I don’t go out looking for platoon players.

Obviously every team would love to find nine everyday players and trot them out there 162 times, but that’s an impossible goal and instead leads to so-called “everyday players” like Jones, Kubel, and Plouffe flailing away against same-sided pitchers they have no business facing.

Over the past three seasons, the Twins have scored the fewest runs in the league, making “I don’t go out looking for platoon players” sound awfully tone deaf coming from the GM. It’s nothing new, though.

• Mauer hasn’t played since Aug. 19, but according to Win Above Replacement and Fan Graphs’ valuation system, he’s still been worth more than his salary this season.

• This year the Twins have been out-scored by 158 runs, which is the second-worst run differential in baseball. The worst run differential in Twins history belongs to the 1995 team at -186.

• Since taking over for Matt Capps as Twins closer, Glen Perkins has converted 90 percent of his save chances (52-for-58) with a 2.31 ERA.

LaTroy Hawkins left the Twins for a two-year, $8 million deal with the Cubs as a 31-year-old free agent, and a decade later, he’s still rolling along.

Francisco Liriano is lined up to start the Wild Card playoff game for the Pirates.

• For a lot more about Mauer’s future and the Twins’ roster options for next season, check out this week’s “Gleeman and The Geek” episode.

Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/26/2013 - 09:48 am.

    Right and wrong

    I lived for more than half a century in metro St. Louis, where the Cardinals are a secular religion, and every player and team is examined microscopically by the ticket-buying public. Offhand, my guess is that, in St. Louis, the Twins would be drawing crowds of about 2,500 per game. They’re that bad, and that painful for me to watch. Probably even more painful for Ron Gardenhire to watch…

    I agree with Mr. Gleeson that shutting down Joe Mauer is the right thing for the Twins to do, and that he should take the winter off. Enjoy being a very wealthy newlywed. Then come to spring training prepared to be the Twins’ #1 player at first base, with an occasional stint as the DH. Putting him back at catcher would be crazy, and beyond that, it would expose the Twins organization to liability issues they ought to avoid. He continues to have value for the team offensively, and they should take advantage of that by prolonging his hitting career.

    Josmil Pinto has proved himself to be an adequate defensive replacement for Mauer, and while that continues to be the case, the Twins should be actively pursuing a replacement for Pinto. Why? The productive lifespan of a major league catcher — with the occasional and very rare exception — is very short, indeed. Pinto will have to deal with injuries, too, and probably just as he really begins to be productive offensively for a full season.

    Brian Dozier is quite capable at 2nd base, but I note with some puzzlement that local broadcast and media people speak of him as some sort of exceptional offensive presence. Allow me to submit that a 2nd baseman who’s hitting in the .240s is not someone to be in awe of on the offensive side of the game. That he hits an occasional home run is good, but as an opposing manager, I’m not going to pitch around him until his strikeout totals are about half their current level.

    Saddest of all, perhaps, on the offensive side, is the fact that, after Mauer, who hasn’t hit a baseball in a game for more than a month, the Twins’ leading hitters are either playing for the Pirates, or have averages under .250. That’s pitiful. Equally pitiful is considering Josh Willingham a power hitter, and paying him millions to be that kind of player — when he has a batting average (.211) that’s just over the Mendoza line.

    If money is an issue with the owners, my off-the-wall recommendation is to dispense with the desperate search for free agent gems in the pitching department, and in fact, to dispense with the idea of starting pitching altogether. Good-quality starters are few and far between, and from the economic perspective, unless the Twins stumble across another Greg Maddux who’s only 19 years old and willing to pitch for relative peanuts, perhaps out of the Twins’ reach. Instead, hire a dozen “relief” pitchers at $1 or $2 million apiece. Have them pitch two innings per game, more or less, through the season — it shouldn’t be hard to figure out a schedule that won’t tax individual arms all that much when there are a dozen of them — and see what happens. It won’t cost any more, and will likely cost much less, than spending big bucks on a free agent pitcher who’s not going to be able to turn the Twins into a World Series contender by himself.

    If that sounds like a recipe for failure, keep in mind the team’s number of losses each season for the past 3 seasons when they’ve paid substantial amounts of money for starting pitching that’s been miserable, to put it charitably. It looks to me like there’s little to lose by trying something that, in baseball’s insulated little world, would be considered radical, indeed.

    I claim no expertise beyond that of any other long-time baseball fan, but upgraded my cable service this year so I could watch the Twins. I didn’t get good value for my money.

  2. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 09/26/2013 - 10:47 am.

    If the Twins put Mauer back on the field as a catcher,…

    …and, God Forbid, he should have a subsequent disabling brain injury, the public will hold the Twins’ management – and even its ownership – accountable.

    Remember what a great match Mauer was – and IS – with the Twins organization ? You know, “Local boy makes good” and seeming such a wholesome kind of person – modest, his family very important to him, etc. He more than any player has been a near-perfect model of a player for the Twins.

    Well, having promoted him in this fashion, the public, who liked him in the first place, have become further affected by all that PR. If the team pushes him back into a clearly avoidable situation that leads to further brain injury, the public will not soon forgive the Twins.

    This sorry baseball team shouldn’t do something stupid here, no matter how valuable they think Mauer is in the catcher role – it’s not in their interest.

  3. Submitted by Richard Mensing on 09/26/2013 - 07:32 pm.

    Radical Solution to Twins Pitching Woes

    Actually I agree with the gist of a previous poster’s radical solution to the Twins pitching woes. (A staff composed of two inning relievers) But I might apply it in a more moderate way.

    I think everyone agrees that the Twins first priority is to find pitchers who can be quality starters. And they need to do so in a way that doesn’t subject fans to several more 90 loss seasons. I think the Twins are wasting time shuttling pitchers back and forth to Rochester in a quest to plug holes in a five man rotation.

    A few observations: The Twins way, of course, is to show patience- which means that a pitcher who gets called up and isn’t ready, usually gets a several chances (losses) to prove that he isn’t ready. When the Twins try to move a long reliever to a starter’s role, said pitcher needs to get his arm stretched out and that usually takes about a month. Often it seemed that the 4th or 5th inning proved the downfall for Twins starters. (Scott Diamond as an example.)

    What to try? I think the Twins should break spring training with their top eight starters on the staff. The roles of starter and long reliever would be interchangeable and eight pitchers would all be stretched out. Dispense of the middle reliever and short reliever roles and leave three relievers for the late innings. (Thielbar, Perkins, Tonkin.) The rotation could be setup similar to a spring training game with two pitchers slated to pitch on given day. If a starter is cruising, give him an extra inning or so. As presently constituted the eight starters might be
    Correa, Pelfrey, Diamond, Duduno, Gibson, Worley, Walters and Albers. Certainly the list would change, perhaps often.

    If one of the pitchers was particularly effective, the he would be rewarded and given a longer leash. The hope is that eventually a few quality starters would emerge. If so they the Twins might be able to move toward a more conventional rotation during the midseason.

    As I see it, this might alleviate some of the concerns about overworking the bullpen. Face it the Twins are going to overwork the bullpen next year with five starters because they won’t have five starters that can give them consistent quality starts. A possible solution as I see it, is to have pitchers in the bullpen who are accustomed to pitching more innings.

    There’s probably lots of holes in this plan, but one thing is clear: the traditional way of setting up a pitching rotation hasn’t worked for the Twins and is unlikely to work for several years. Try something…..anything.

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