The Minnesota Twins have spent the better part of the last decade outperforming expectations. It is far, far too soon to count them out for this year already.
News came down this morning that all-world catcher Joe Mauer will spend the foreseeable future on the disabled list, thanks to a loss of strength of both of his legs. This is just the latest in a string of recent back luck for Minnesota, but it certainly shouldn’t bring any sense of relief to Tigers fans.
Mauer will be visiting his doctor in Baltimore (who may or may not be the same doctor that handled his back issues that kept him out the first month of 2009), but so far there has been very little in the way of concrete information regarding the severity of his injury, or any guesses on a timetable for return. Already, national columnists are spouting off about the Twins being done for the season, about Mauer being shifted to a new position (centerfield?!?), and about how the Mauer contract, which pays his an average of $23 million per year through 2018, will hamstring the franchise long-term.
Settle down, people. It’s April 15.
First, we don’t know how long Mauer will be out. We don’t know if his injuries to his legs will be a chronic issue, we don’t even know what has caused the loss of strength. Until we do, it’s irresponsible to speculate on how this will affect the franchise’s fortunes beyond this season. I think it’s widely assumed that Mauer will have to move to another position in time and if these issues cause that to happen sooner rather than later, then so be it. His bat won’t be as much of a plus as an outfielder, but he’s still a very good hitter.
Beyond that, I can promise you that Mauer’s contract is insured. If these injuries cause him to miss significant time, the Twins will recoup at least part of their costs via their policy, so let’s not go feeling sorry for the Twins ownership group there either. There is always a huge risk in signing a player long-term and the Twins knew those risks when they made the deal. They wouldn’t be so dumb as to not put a policy on the contract as well. Yes, that policy will only pay if he is unable to play (and not if say, he can play but at as a shell of his former self), but at least it’s something.
Beyond the issues with Mauer, the Twins suffered the loss of Tsuyoshi Nishioka to a broken leg during a double-play attempt in the season’s first week. Ace left hander Francisco Liriano has been more than a bit disappointing thus far as well, and the bullpen, headed by Joe Nathan and Matt Capps, blew a late lead to Tampa Bay last night. The combination of those things, and the Twins’ 4-8 record has people wondering if Minnesota is in real trouble already.
The Mauer issue likely won’t be resolved soon and Drew Butera will handle the bulk of the catching duties until Mauer returns. Butera isn’t Mauer by any stretch, but knowing the Twins, they’ll catch lightning in a bottle for at least a few weeks and Butera will play like a good MLB starting catcher. Afterall, we’ve seen this movie before.
When Justin Morneau went down with a concussion at mid-season last year, coupled with the loss of Nathan before the season began, the Twins were all but written off. All they did was win the division going away. In 2009, Morneau missed the last month of the year and the Twins curled up into the fetal position for all of 12 seconds before they went out and won 17 of their last 21 games to steal the division from Detroit (and looking back, Brandon Inge was still hit by that pitch).
Even without Nishioka and Mauer, Minnesota will still run a lineup out there that features Morneau, Michael Cuddyer (playing second base), Jim Thome, Jason Kubel, and Denard Span. If Danny Valencia can replicate the enormous success he had last year, they are that much deeper, but even if he can’t this is still a darn good lineup and nothing to be written off for sure. Nishioka will be back by early June and Mauer may well be back by then as well. Still plenty of time to catch up.
The concerns about Liriano are real as are the concerns about the bullpen. Capps and Nathan will be fine and Minnesota has a decent starter sitting in the bullpen should they need to replace Liriano. Middle relief might be an issue, but no more so than it is for Detroit or even Chicago. With or without Mauer, the Twins fate will be determined by how well their starting pitching does.
Mauer’s injury makes the margin for error much smaller than it was for Minnesota, but it doesn’t eliminate them as a threat in the AL Central, not by a long shot. I’ve seen too much Twins baseball over the past 10 seasons than to think this team is out of it until the day they are eliminated.