MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — As the Minnesota Twins annual honors were handed out at Target Field, the club’s most valuable player hardly needed his introduction.
He has a new title, though, and that’s going to take some getting used to.
First baseman Joe Mauer.
“That sounded a little bit weird, didn’t it?” Mauer said to the audience last month during the Diamond Awards ceremony on the eve of the team’s winter fan fair.
If this mid-career position switch was still setting in for Mauer, that weekend at the ballpark during TwinsFest helped cement it. Seeing the abbreviation “1B” next to his name on the placard at the autograph station served as another reminder.
A concussion, caused by a foul tip off the mask during a game last August and ended his 2013 season early, forced a difficult series of doctor consultations and family conversations that culminated with the decision to leave the most dangerous position on the field.
“I want to be out there every day. That was the case when I was a catcher, but physically it’s just not possible,” said Mauer, who has started his 11th year in the majors. “I’m definitely looking forward to being on the field more. Hopefully that translates into a lot more wins.”
The fresher body ought to increase his availability as well as boost his production, but the obvious benefits didn’t make this move easy.
The Twins left this up to Mauer, whose wife Maddie gave birth to twin girls last July but wasn’t able to be around them as much as he wanted because of the sensitivity to sound and light that lingered from the concussion.
The symptoms are gone now, and Mauer said his legs “feel great.” The temptation to put the mask on again will probably arise this spring. He’ll have to ignore it.
“If I grabbed the mitt, I’m sure Maddie and everybody in my family would probably be on eggshells,” Mauer said, adding: “I feel like I could go out there and catch every day right now. But it’s not fair to myself, my family or the team if I get down to spring and the first day of pitcher’s BP I take one off the head and I miss half the year.”
Catching, with the exceptional offense he provided at a defensive-minded position and his abilities to throw out base stealers and call pitches, was a significant part of his value to the Twins — and of his $23 million annual salary.
Veteran Kurt Suzuki was signed to replace him behind the plate, and prospect Josmil Pinto will push for time this spring. That doesn’t mean Mauer can’t still be a positive influence on the pitching staff.
“The guy knows all the hitters in the league,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “So we can use Mauer in a number of different ways. He knows how to play first base. He’s put in that work, but he can also sit in on these meetings and help our catchers out. He’ll be a good grandpa for Pinto.”
Mauer will turn 31 in April.
“I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes, but I’m here to win and if I can help, that’s what I’m going to do,” Mauer said.
The first workout for pitchers and catchers for the Twins in Fort Myers, Fla., is Monday. The first full-squad workout is Feb. 22.
Under the supervision of former Twins manager Tom Kelly, a special assistant who serves as an instructor during camp, Mauer will get a crash course in the footwork and technique required to play first base. He has 56 games of experience there, but even for an elite athlete such as Mauer there’ll be a lot to learn before the muscle memory becomes rote.
“I think he’ll be fine,” second baseman Brian Dozier said. “He’s a very quick learner.”
The lessons should really start to pay off this summer.
“It’s a lot less taxing on your body,” Mauer said. “I’m looking forward to seeing how I feel, especially later on in the season.”
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