Jayson Stark: Minnesota Twins

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The hard part came when Joe Mauer recognized that he “just couldn’t do it” anymore.

Couldn't do what he’s been doing nonstop since he was 14 years old.

Couldn't do that special thing that's defined him as a baseball player for the last decade and a half.

Couldn't strap on that chest protector, wriggle into his mask, ease into his crouch for the 38 millionth time.

Just couldn't do it, at 30 years old. Couldn't catch anymore. Couldn't.

“When it finally hit me in the offseason, when I realized I just couldn't do it, it was pretty emotional,” he says, nearly halfway through his strangest spring training. “I've put in a lot of work to become the catcher that I was. So it’s definitely disappointing, just how it all unfolded.

“I mean, we wouldn't be having this conversation,” he says, finally, “if I didn't have that concussion last year.”

[+] EnlargeJoe Mauer
AP Photo/Steven SenneJoe Mauer has much to learn about being an every-day first baseman.
That concussion. It looked so innocent at the time. Mauer had taken an Ike Davis foul tip off the mask in August. He assured the world he’d be fine. He was placed on the seven-day concussion disabled list.

And he would never catch again. Never. Couldn't.

So now here he is, a little more than six months later, with no catcher’s mitt in his locker, no catcher’s gear in his clubhouse, no catchers’ meetings to attend or bullpens to catch.

Now here he is, trying to do something almost no one has ever done after catching for as long as he has caught. He is trying to become a first baseman -- not just for a day here and there, but for the long haul.

It’s strange. Even for him. Maybe especially for him.

“It’s still early in the spring,” the face of the Twins’ franchise says. “But it’s definitely been a weird couple of weeks.”

Well, it’s about to get weirder, because Joe Mauer has a lot to learn. Even after starting 54 games at first over the last three seasons.

“You know, the last few seasons, when I’d get out there, it was kind of a day off from catching, and it was kind of like, go out there and do your best. But now,” he says, “it’s your job. So you’d better do it right.”

And when we hear those words come out of his mouth, it tells us a lot about him. Don’t you think?

He may be soft-spoken and even-keel. Don’t be fooled. He’ll never be Dustin Pedroia, setting out each day to get all dirt-covered and high-voltage on you. But that doesn't mean Joe Mauer isn't reaching for the stars, every day, every year.

So if this is now his job, it’s no hobby anymore. He’d better do it right. He is going to do it right.

Even as he jokes about how his knees don’t miss catching, and he hasn't been real nostalgic for those ricochets off the cage in live batting practice, Joe Mauer has been busy setting a personal record this spring -- for most brains picked.

You name the Twins coach/instructor/legend with first-base expertise. This man has worked with him: Tom Kelly ... Paul Molitor ... Rod Carew ... Kent Hrbek ... Ron Gardenhire ... Joe Vavra.

“I talked to him today about a first-and-third, one-out situation,” says Molitor, who played nearly 200 games at first on his tour around the diamond, on his way to the Hall of Fame. “It’s a play that requires forethought. ... Just trying to get him to start having a little bit of comprehension of all the different things that can [happen] in different situations. Physically, I’m not worried about him catching the ball. It’s just those little things, where only experience is going to help him out.”

When it finally hit me in the offseason, when I realized I just couldn't do it, it was pretty emotional. I've put in a lot of work to become the catcher that I was. So it's definitely disappointing, just how it all unfolded.

--Joe Mauer on catching
The people who run the Twins are certain he has the hands, the smarts and the footwork to be really good at this. And as their GM, Terry Ryan, said in November, on the day the Twins announced his move, they are confident that Joe Mauer will still be “one of the best players in the game, even if he’s at first base.”

But that’s actually where this debate gets fascinating. As a catcher, this is a player who has made an impact that can be safely described as historic. After all ...

How many other catchers in history have won three batting titles? That would be none. How many other catchers in history can match or beat his .405 career on-base percentage (with at least 5,000 plate appearances)? Just one (Mickey Cochrane). How many other catchers can match or beat his .873 OPS? Only two (Cochrane and Mike Piazza). So as a catcher, Joe Mauer is one of the most productive who ever lived.

But now, as a first baseman, he is going to have to register a different kind of impact -- because he is attempting to make a transition that almost no one in history has ever made. Seriously:

• According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only two players -- two -- have ever played at least 500 career games as both a catcher and a first baseman. That would be Joe Torre and Gene Tenace.

• Or, if we look at this another way, Elias tells us that just three players -- three -- have ever caught 500 games in their careers and spent even two other seasons (or more) in which they played at least 100 games at first base. That would be Torre, Tenace and a 19th-century multi-position sensation known as “Honest Jack” Boyle.

But that’s it. So that means Mauer is trying to follow a template here that barely exists. We know that Torre won an MVP award in the first season after he stopped catching (1971). Other than that, however, there is very little data to help us project what effect these sorts of transitions have on the players who make them.

Hold on, though. There’s more. The Twins talk about how they hope this move will enable Mauer to be a productive hitter deeper into his career -- ideally, of course, for the five years he has left on his contract (at $23 million a year). It sounds logical. But again, there is almost no one like him in history to give us any way of knowing if they’re right. Take a look:

• How many players have ever played 300 games anywhere on the field, at any other positions, after catching their 900th game? Just one, according to Elias: Joe Torre.

• And even if we lower the bar by a couple of seasons, how many men besides Torre played 300 games at other positions after catching even their 700th game? Only one more, Elias says: B.J. Surhoff.

So if Joe Mauer goes on to play, say, 600 games at first over the next five years, he’ll be in a whole different realm of historic territory. Can the Twins really count on that? How do we have any way of knowing?

[+] EnlargeJoe Mauer
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesMauer appeared in 113 games last season, making eight starts at first base.
And then there’s maybe the most intriguing question of all: As a catcher, there was no doubt this man was a perennial All-Star and MVP candidate. But is he still all of those things as a first baseman?

“I was one of the guys who tried to get him to hang onto catching as long as he could,” Molitor says, “just because his unique gift set, as a guy who could win batting titles as a catcher and do things like that offensively, made him a little bit more unique. So as great as his offense can be, maybe we can see him go to another level.”

But to go to that next level, does he now have to (ahem) hit like a first baseman? Does he have to go back to being the 28-homer man he was in 2009, at the late, great Metrodome? Or is .323/.405/.468 (his career slash line) enough?

“Just another debate for you guys,” chuckles Twins bench coach Terry Steinbach. “What’s better -- a .340 hitter with maybe 10-15 home runs or a guy who’s hitting maybe .220 with 30 (homers)? I don’t know. We have bus rides where we argue about that. But you know what I think? Just let Joe be Joe.”

Well, if that’s all that’s going to be expected, hey, that works for Joe himself.

“I’m starting my 11th year in the big leagues,” Mauer says. “I think you know what type of a hitter I am. I’m not going to try to do anything or be anything that I’m not. ... If I hit a few more homers here and there, that would be great. But I’ll just keep having good at-bats and keep trying to produce runs for our team.”

So have we undervalued the way he does that? We just might have.

According to baseball-reference.com’s indispensible Play Index, Mauer's offensive contributions alone were worth 30.4 Wins Above Replacement from 2008-13. Just four other players beat that: Miguel Cabrera (40.4), Albert Pujols (31.6), Robinson Cano (31.5) and Joey Votto (30.9).

So we rest our case. While it’s natural to expect some regression in his 30s, if the Twins get five more years with even a semblance of Joe Being Joe, that’s going to work for them -- at any position.

And the truth is, it’s going to have to work. Because there’s no rethinking of this maneuver on anyone’s drawing board. No matter how much he or anyone else wish that were possible.

Asked what he would tell people out there who have one of those famous PS3 (“Well played, Mauer”) games that still have him catching for a living, Mauer laughs.

“I’d say, `Hold onto it,’” says Joe Mauer, with no hesitation whatever, “because I’m not going back there.”

Call it history in the making

March, 3, 2014
Mar 3
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Baseball history takes many forms, many sizes, many shapes. But at 3:09 p.m. Monday, in lovely Hammond Stadium, it took the form of two veteran umpires wriggling into a pair of headsets.

And waiting around for the next 2 minutes, 34 seconds.

So as electrifying historical milestones go, it's safe to say this one wasn't exactly Bobby Thomson's homer.

But it was history all the same. Replay history. And the words "upon further review" were never even uttered. Who knew that was actually possible?

Baseball's new, hopefully improved, replay era had to start somewhere. So let the record show it started in Fort Myers on a picturesque Monday afternoon, in a game being televised with exactly three cameras.

It started with a play in which the two players on the historic replay screen were a couple of soon-to-be household names who were thrilled to be immortalized (or whatever) -- Twins outfielder Chris Rahl and Blue Jays first baseman Jared Goedert.

And it started with a challenge by Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, which was issued not by tossing a red flag, an old rosin bag or a broken fungo bat -- but with a jog out to first base to invite first-base ump Fieldin Culbreth to get those replay machines off and whirring.

"John came out, and, basically, he told me, 'I'm not too sure that you're not right here. But since we haven't done it before, let's go take a look,'" Culbreth reported afterward. "And I said, 'OK. That's what it's for.'"

So off went Culbreth and plate ump Bob Davidson to grab their headsets and wait for Brian O'Nora, who was serving as the replay umpire for the middle three innings, to make the call.

O'Nora then spent the next 2½ minutes reviewing a sixth-inning play in which Toronto shortstop Munenori Kawasaki pulled Goedert off first base with a high throw -- and Goedert took just enough time trying to find the bag when he came down that Rahl was called safe.

So while O'Nora watched the replays from a video truck outside the stadium, Rahl stood on the bag, thinking, "This could be kind of cool. I might get on ESPN or something." (Which he did, by the way, about 87,000 times).

And Goedert joined his fellow infielders on the mound, where they basically fidgeted around, trying to comprehend the "magic" of the moment.

"It was almost like it was a mound visit," he said later, "with no coach out there."

And so, as the crowd buzzed and both teams waited anxiously, O'Nora began peering at his screen, trying to make sense of what just happened.

Had this play occurred during the regular season, the man making this call wouldn't have been sitting in a video truck a few hundred yards away. He'd have been a replay ump, sitting in MLB's replay headquarters in New York.

And had this play occurred in a "real" game, the replay ump would have had a dozen camera angles to choose from, in ultra-high-def, not three Fox Sports North cameras that weren't quite that state of the art.

But, eventually, O'Nora was provided an angle that "definitely" showed, he said, that by the time Goedert located the bag, "the Twins runner's foot was already on the base." So he relayed that info to Culbreth, who then yanked off his headset and gave an emphatic "safe" sign. And the replay era was off and digitizing.

It turned out to be the first of two experimental replay extravaganzas on this day. And neither call was overturned. But it was a chance to finally see baseball's replay wheels turning, after a mere 138-season wait. So now that we've seen this system in action, what have we learned? Here’s what:

It took longer than advertised

Baseball officials have said they expect most calls to be reviewed -- zip, zip, zip -- in somewhere between a minute and 90 seconds. The two reviews in Monday's game took 2:34 and 2:03, respectively. But Culbreth was confident that time can be sliced during the season, when more camera angles and better technology can help umpires zero in on exactly what they're looking for more quickly.

"It will work itself out," he said. "I think time really isn't going to be an issue in the end. And if it is, it's about getting the play right in the end, anyhow."

It wasn't too long for the players

We've heard repeatedly that the players' biggest fear about replay was that it would take too much time and destroy the rhythm of the game. But even after two reviews that ate up more than two minutes each, there wasn't a complaint to be heard.

"I didn't think it slowed the game down or anything too much," said Twins infielder Doug Bernier, whose sprint down the first-base line inspired the second review of the day. "I thought it was fine. I think everyone just wants to make sure you get the call right, so they were able to do that."

Challenges can be optional

Maybe the most encouraging thing that happened all day was the second challenge -- because it happened in the eighth inning, when Gibbons was out of challenges. So in this case, he couldn't officially challenge a close call at first -- but he could "request" one. And the umpires never hesitated in heading right back to the headsets.

And that wasn't just because it was spring training and Day 1 in the replay lab and what the heck, either.

"I'm not separating spring training from the regular season," said Culbreth, who was in the replay booth for the second review. "I'm looking at this thing as this is the future of the game. And I'm going to treat these games here the same way that I'm going to treat them during the regular season. And if there's a reason for me to doubt what happened on the field, in the seventh inning and beyond, when it's the umpires' right to go look at it, if that's how I truly feel about it, I'm going to go take a look at it."

Let's all repeat together: Bravo.

Umpires want to test-drive this system, too

One wrinkle Monday that we didn't expect was three different umpires spending a three-inning stint in the replay booth, just to see how it went and to prepare themselves for their assignments to do this for real in replay headquarters in New York during the season. Asked how that rotation came about, Culbreth replied:

"I've umpired 25 years out there [on the field]. I've got as many minutes in the replay booth as you do. So we're all trying to familiarize ourselves with this thing. And the only way we can do it is get in there as much as we can while we can, let everybody have a taste of it, and that way, when we do go to New York [during the season], we're not stepping into totally virgin ground."

Replay can deliver anyone's 15 minutes of fame

Jared Goedert is a 28-year-old utility man who's about to embark on his ninth minor league season. He didn't start this game. He didn't even enter it until the bottom of the fifth inning. But he wound up in the middle of two plays that suddenly turned into the lead story on "SportsCenter." And how cool was that?

Asked what he'd tell his grandchildren about his historic day in Fort Myers, Goedert laughed.

"I'd probably tell them I was part of history -- and then tell them to guess why," he quipped. "And I'll bet they wouldn't guess that."