Joe Mauer: Move to first base tough but necessary

MINNEAPOLIS — Joe Mauer had to do some soul searching.

The Twins’ six-time All-Star talked with medical personnel
at the Mayo Clinic, one of the best hospitals in the world. He sought the
advice of former teammate Justin Morneau, who like Mauer has dealt with a
concussion.

Ultimately, everything Mauer gathered led him to the same
decision: he will no longer play catcher, instead moving to first base. The
move was announced by Minnesota on Monday after Mauer and Twins general manager
Terry Ryan had discussions after the season ended.

“It was probably one of the tougher decisions I’ve had to
make, but also probably one of the easiest tougher decisions just because I
love catching,” Mauer said during a conference call Monday. “I took my time to
make sure I could make the best decision for myself, my family, my career. …
Although it’s not easy, I look forward to the challenge and I look forward to
getting back on the field.”

Mauer spent 10 seasons as the Twins’ catcher, earning the
American League’s Most Valuable Player Award in 2009, five Silver Sluggers and
three Gold Gloves. His presence behind the plate has become synonymous with
Twins baseball over the past decade.

Now, fans in Minnesota will have to adjust to seeing Mauer
over at first base, a move that was brought on by a concussion that limited
Mauer’s playing time to just 113 games in 2013. Mauer suffered the concussion
on Aug. 19 when he took a foul tip off the mask in a game against the New York
Mets. He was later placed on the 7-day concussion disabled list but remained
sidelined for the rest of the season.

While Mauer was hopeful to return to action in 2013, the
Twins felt it was best to shut him down for the rest of the year and let him
prepare for 2014. He’ll now prepare for next season with a first baseman’s
glove instead of his catcher’s mitt.

“We wouldn’t be having this conversation if I didn’t have
that concussion,” Mauer said. “I think with the two significant blows to my
head that day triggered this whole conversation. Before that happened, the last
two seasons I was feeling great and getting out there. I really tried to do
everything possible that I could to get back on the field. But I wasn’t able to
do that.”

Mauer does have experience at first base, having played
there 55 times over the last three seasons while batting .324/.397/.435 as a
first baseman. That includes 30 games at first in 2012 when Morneau was
injured. Mauer caught just 74 games in 2012, a number that increased in 2013
before his concussion, but he still found himself at first base eight times.

The Twins entered the offseason with a question mark at
first base, as there was no clear frontrunner for the starting job. Moving
Mauer from behind the plate answers that question.

“He’s certainly athletic enough and defensively oriented
enough to play at first — and probably some other spots, for that matter,”
Ryan said. “I think that’s the lead-up to this thing. It wasn’t anything more
than trying to discuss his future to make sure we do what’s best for Joe first
and the club as well.”

Mauer was asked Monday if there was any chance he might be
used occasionally as a backup or emergency catcher. He quickly shot down that
notion.

“No catching. All it takes is one (foul tip),” Mauer said.
“That’s one of the things I really had to realize, that if I said ‘No, I’m
catching, I’m coming to spring training,’ all it could take is one foul tip in
pitchers’ batting practice and I’d be out two or three months or even more.
That’s not something that I want to put my team in that position.”

Minnesota now has four catchers on its 40-man roster: Ryan
Doumit, Josmil Pinto, Chris Herrmann and Eric Fryer. Doumit has spent the last
two seasons with the Twins after seven years in Pittsburgh and has played in
528 career games at catcher. Pinto made his major league debut in 2013, while
Herrmann did the same in 2012. Fryer has 22 big league games under his belt
with Pittsburgh and Minnesota.

While Ryan wouldn’t rule out looking for a free agent
catcher, he feels comfortable with the depth the Twins have at catcher as they
look to replace Mauer.

“We’ve got a pretty good group back there still. Obviously
it doesn’t stop us looking elsewhere as well. That’s always a possibility,”
Ryan said. “Even if we went to spring training as is, we’ve got four guys that
have some experience, and a couple guys with plenty of experience. We’re in
decent shape there, a lot better shape than actually over at first base.”

Mauer’s move to first base likely rules out a return of
Morneau, who was dealt to the Pirates at the trading deadline in late August.
He is now a free agent, but the Twins don’t seem to have room for him with
Mauer assuming the first base role.

“I never say never, but we’ve got a first baseman here,”
Ryan said. “Obviously he’s going to be over there hopefully for 140, 150 games.
We’ve got a first baseman. Justin certainly plays that position and plays it
well, so it lessens (the chance), but I’ll never say that it’s not a
possibility, but it might be improbable.”

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