Jason’s Blog: For the Minnesota Twins, It’s Still About No. 7
Joe Mauer entered Saturday's spring training game against Philadelphia batting .188 in 32 at-bats with just two extra base hits and three RBI. The circle of Twins beat writers, who have been enjoying sunny Florida in March while providing Twins fans with Twitter updates on everything -- including when a player uses a different knot to tie his shoe -- were not alarmed.
In fact, about a week ago, yours truly got into a friendly back-and-forth with my favorite Twins beat writer, MLB.com's Rhett Bollinger, over why there were literally no Twitter mentions about Mauer's struggles this spring. His explanation was there is nothing noteworthy about anything a veteran, whose spot in the lineup is secure, does in spring training. And that tweeting out Mauer's putrid spring stats would only ignite the "trolls."
"Trolls," for the uninitiated, are people who post online, often anonymously, just to agitate others. I submit that any rational Twins fan who has been paying attention to the production level of the Twins' franchise player since he signed his $185 million contract and has concerns when they see Spring 2015 look eerily similar to Summer 2014 are not trolls -- they are smart.
They see a giant puddle ahead while those connected to the team are pleading that it's just another mirage.
Then a funny thing happened in Twins Twitterville on Saturday. Mauer went 2-for-3 with a two-run homer to right field, upping his spring batting average to .229 and his RBI count to five. Suddenly, a single-game performance by a veteran regular was front-page news.
"Apparently all that extra tee work w/ Tom Brunansky has started to pay off for Mauer," tweeted Mike Berandino of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
"Molly expects No. 7 to shift into game approach mode over the final week of spring training games," tweeted LaVelle E. Neal of the Star Tribune, who wrote a lengthy feature on Mauer in February explaining how good he felt coming into this spring.
"Molitor said Mauer has been working with Brunansky on pulling the ball with authority this spring. It paid off today with that long HR to RF," Bollinger tweeted.
All three writers were also quick to tweet that Brunansky actually called the now-famous Shot Heard Round Lee County prior to the 2-0 pitch.
So here's my point -- Mauer is in the midst of this career deal and will once again be near the top of the Twins order. If you think his homer on Saturday is indicative of things to come, read no further.
If you're concerned, like I am, that a team that struggles with pitching cannot afford to have a guy who hits .270 with no power or speed on the bases anchor the two or three spot in the order, then let's cut the hyperbole about sweet his swing looked on that fateful March 28 bomb.
The Mauer Media has done a remarkable job of pretending that those who dare question what's been happening with the franchise player since he signed that big contract are "haters," "trolls," and really don't understand baseball. That's fine. I have no problem admitting that guys like Brunansky know more about baseball than I do.
But here's the thing -- Bruno has been the hitting coach since the start of last season. When Mauer struggled to crack the .270 mark in the first two months of the season and had just 15 RBI (which did include two three-run bombs to RF I might add), we were told not to panic. Bruno worked with Mauer at times last season as well -- this was thoroughly documented by the Mauer Media. He finished the year hitting .277 with four HR and 55 RBI (.732 OPS).
Not bad numbers for a No. 7 hitter making about $4 million a year.
The 2015 Twins lineup is going to be much better. I think this is the best lineup they will field since Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer left town. Danny Santana has looked every bit the part of a great leadoff guy. Brian Dozier, fresh off signing a modest contract extension, continues to impress with his power. Torii Hunter will provide consistency in the middle of the order and Kennys Vargas and Oswaldo Arcia are going to hit HRs at Target Field -- something that the Mauer Media often hints can't be done by lefties.
I trust the new coaching staff, lead by Molitor, to make the right moves, even if they are difficult ones. We saw that last week when Aaron Hicks -- the presumptive starting centerfielder coming into camp -- was sent down to Triple-A. We also saw it when veteran Mike Pelfrey was moved to the bullpen.
That leaves Mauer. The elephant in the room for two seasons is about to either dance around or stomp on people. His production (or lack thereof) can no longer be masked by career comparisons to Hall of Famers, the dimensions of Target Field (recall early last season when Ron Gardenhire said Mauer would be hitting .400 if he played at Fenway), or that defenses have him shifted to left field.
The Twins have six more games this spring, including one tonight, before they head north. I imagine Mauer will start in at least five of those games. If Saturday's tailor-made shot that Bruno called was the gateway to the new and improved Mauer, then we should see a few encores this week.
If not, I expect plenty of excuses to follow.
Jason Iacovino can be heard Tuesdays and Fridays on KRFO-AM 1390 at 3:50 p.m. Leave a comment below or follow him on Twitter @JasonIacovino.