The fourth position preview examines the Minnesota Twins’ first basemen. Joe Mauer enters his second season as a full-time first baseman and is looking to bounce back from a disappointing 2014.
FIRST BASE — PROJECTED STARTER
Joe Mauer (.277/.361/.371, 4 HR, 55 RBI in 120 games)
Kennys Vargas (.274/.316/.456, 9 HR, 38 RBI in 53 games)
2014 IN REVIEW
The 2014 season was one of change for Mauer, who spent the first 10 years of his big league career as a catcher before shifting to first base last year. A concussion sustained in August of 2013 (the result of a foul tip off his mask) forced Mauer to get out from behind the plate and find a new position. Mauer did play a bit of first base the previous three seasons but 2014 marked his first full year at first base.
There was certainly a bit of an adjustment for Mauer defensively at his new position. Early in the season he was a bit more apprehensive on balls hit to the right side of the infield, and his footwork was a work in progress. By the end of the year, though, Mauer seemed to be much more comfortable and looked more natural in the field than he did at the start of the year.
Offensively, Mauer struggled. He had one of his worst years of his career at the plate. His .277 average, while good for most players, was the lowest of his 11 seasons. His four homers were the second-fewest of his career (only his injury-shortened 2011 season had fewer home runs). And Mauer’s OPS (on-base plus slugging) of .732 was the second-worst of his career, ahead of only that 2011 season. Mauer did deal with an oblique injury that kept him out for 34 games — almost all of July. He batted .289 in 44 games after returning from the oblique injury, compared to .271 in 76 games before it. Still, he was a far cry from his career average of .319.
While Mauer had a down year offensively, the Twins did see the emergence of rookie Kennys Vargas, who split time between first base and designated hitter. Vargas, a native of Puerto Rico, made his big league debut on his 24th birthday (Aug. 1) and wound up hitting nine home runs in the final two months of the season. Vargas only played 13 games at first base as Mauer’s backup, and the defense of the 6-foot-5, 275-pound Vargas is still a bit raw. However, he showed last year that he has the ability to hit in the majors — even if he did strike out 63 times in 215 at-bats.
The hope is that Mauer can stay healthy and on the field this year, something he’s had trouble doing in recent years. In all likelihood, Mauer will receive the majority of the starts at first base this year, with Vargas spelling him occasionally. When Vargas isn’t playing first base, he’s a lock as the team’s everyday designated hitter.
The 2015 season is a big one for both Mauer and Vargas — for different reasons. Mauer needs to rebound from a disappointing 2014 and be the type of hitter Twins fans have grown accustomed to. Though he won’t develop into a home run threat, Mauer should be able to get on base at a higher clip than he did last season. His 96 strikeouts in 2014 were also a career high. He struck out in 18.5 percent of his at-bats and had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.60, both of which were the worst in 11 seasons. Whatever the reason was for Mauer’s struggles, the Twins hope they don’t resurface in 2015.
Though Vargas was a positive in 2014, his success came in just a two-month span. This will be his first opportunity to prove he can hit and be productive over a longer period of time. Vargas was a .288 career hitter in six seasons the minors, and he’s also hit double-digit home runs in each of the last three seasons. Now the challenge is adjusting to major-league pitchers, who will now have more of a scouting report on Vargas after a few months in the big leagues. And he’ll need to continue to work on his defense at first base for the times he does put on a glove. Also, keeping his weight in check will be important for Vargas throughout the season.
KEY TO SUCCESS
Get Mauer back on track. The Twins signed him to a mega contract in 2010 that pays him $23 million annually, much more than anyone else on Minnesota’s roster. Part of Mauer’s value at that point was that he played a premium position at catcher, and was the best-hitting catcher in the game. Now as a first baseman, his value is different than it was then. Still, he can be a productive hitter and will be batting in the heart of the Twins’ lineup. If he has another season this year like he did in 2014, Minnesota’s offense will struggle as a result. If Mauer returns to form in 2015, the Twins’ lineup should be even more potent than it was one year ago.