Mauer Would Have Been More Appreciated On the Modern Day Twins

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

It seemed evident that Joe Mauer would retire after the 2018 season. On the final game of the year, he legged out a double and later emerged from the dugout in catcher’s gear. Mauer caught one pitch from Matt Belisle, 38, and exited to applause from the Target Field crowd. The Minnesota Twins retired his number in 2019, and he’s on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this year.

Mauer’s final game was a window into an alternate reality. One where he never took Ike Davis’ foul tip off of his helmet in 2013, which forever changed his career. How long would he have stayed behind the plate? Would he still have been playing now? We’ll never know. But it certainly would have helped his Hall of Fame case.

He’s in the running with 2,123 career hits, three Gold Gloves, and 55.2 wins above replacement. Mauer finished with a career .306/.388/.439 batting average, and he hit .327/.410/.473 as a catcher and made six All-Star appearances from 2006 to 2013. Mauer had his best season in 2009, hitting .365/.444/.587 and winning his third AL batting championship. At the time, he had more batting championships in the span of four years than all other major league catchers in the history of baseball combined.

Still, he’s not guaranteed to make the Hall of Fame because his concussion in 2013 forced him to move to first base, and he hit .267/.353/.380 in his first three years as a first baseman. “The concussions, it happened,” Mauer said recently.

Things happen in the course of a career, and I’m thankful I had the time to be behind the plate because that’s what I enjoyed the most. … I love the position in baseball, being behind the plate, calling pitches, working with the staff. I really took a lot of pride in that. I know a lot of people out there maybe know me a little bit more for the bat, but I took a lot of pride in trying to be a complete player and trying to be just as good defensively as I could be offensively. But we’ll see what happens.

The biggest knock on Mauer, at least locally, was that his teams didn’t win in the postseason. Under Ron Gardenhire, the Twins won the AL Central six times from 2002 to 2010. But last year, the Twins won their first playoff game since 2004 and first playoff series since 2002. Mauer was a rookie in 2004 but suffered a knee injury that ended his season after 35 games. He never won a playoff game in Minnesota.

Mauer was a star on the 2006 team that won 96 games, but the Oakland Athletics swept them. The New York Yankees swept the Twins in 2009 and 2010 when he was still at his apex. Mauer hit .305/.384/.417 in 2017, but the Yankees eliminated Paul Molitor’s Twins in the Wild Card round that year. He retired a year before Minnesota hired Rocco Baldelli and the Bomba Squad that led baseball in home runs, won 101 games, and rejuvenated interest in the Twins.

“We’ve talked to Joe internally about what this would look like going forward,” Derek Falvey said in October 2018, expressing his interest in retaining Mauer if Mauer wanted to return to the Twins. “I think we’ll keep the details private. But we told Joe in that right situation and the right thoughts about the future, and obviously, there is a lot that goes into signing somebody, we’ve always told him we’d welcome Joe back, certainly.”

Mauer always expressed appreciation for Gardenhire and Molitor. His coaches and teammates appreciated him, even during losing seasons and Mauer’s down years. But he would have been a perfect fit in the Falvey, Thad Levine, and Baldelli era. Imagine if someone told you that there was a catcher in St. Paul who could hit .300 and reach base 40% of the time in the majors. The Twins would sign him in a heartbeat. He’d slot in ahead of Ryan Jeffers on the depth chart and could mix in at designated hitter. Mauer would be a crucial cog on a winning roster.

It’s hard to know what kind of player Mauer would have been had he not suffered concussions. The 2013 concussion changed the trajectory of his career. He planned to play through 2019, but he suffered another concussion in 2018 that cost him 25 games and decided to retire. Mauer also would have been in his late 30s by the time Baldelli took over and may have eventually transitioned to first base. Ultimately, he’s a borderline Hall of Famer with how his career played out and a reminder that one player alone can only influence winning so much.

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