Likely Starter: Joe Mauer
2011 Stats: .287/.360/.368, 3 HR, 30 RBI, 38 R, 0/0 SB
Potential Backups: Ryan Doumit, Drew Butera, J.R. Towles, Rene Rivera, Chris Herrmann
One eighty five.
That was the collective batting average for Twins catchers last year. The position produced a total of 98 hits in 162 games; by comparison, Joe Mauer had 90 hits by the All-Star break in 2009, and that was after missing the entire month of April.
That transcendent '09 campaign was what earned Mauer his massive $184 million contract, which kicked off with a thud last year. Limited to 42 starts behind the plate due to injury, the former MVP watched as his replacements tested the very limits of ineptitude, posting an astonishingly bad .453 OPS in his absence.
It was a treacherous experience, but also a reminder as to why, when healthy and able to catch, Mauer is worth the premium price tag. While the Twins carried an especially awful batch of backup catchers last year, finding decent ones is no easy task. In general, this just isn't a position that produces much offense.
American League backstops collectively hit just .238/.305/.391 last year; that's a rate of production that Mauer easily surpassed even while battling numerous ailments. If his health is vastly improved this season – and all early signs are indicating just that – his numbers will dwarf an average catcher's production and he'll once again be a tremendous asset, underrated by those who focus solely on home runs and RBI.
Of course, the money question at this point is whether Mauer can stick at catcher for the majority of the season. For now he's claiming that his knees are feeling just fine, but numerous injuries have taken their toll on his legs over the years and he had a tendency to wear down in September and October even when relatively healthy. Considering the seven remaining years on Mauer's contract and the need for him to produce at the end of the season, which he hasn't been able to do in the past, I believe the Twins would be wise to significantly lighten his load behind the plate regardless of how he's feeling.
Fortunately, improved depth should enable Ron Gardenhire to do that without once again turning the catcher position into an offensive black hole. Ryan Doumit, signed during the offseason after hitting .303/.353/.477 for the Pirates last year, figures to serve as Mauer's top backup. Though he's considered a weak defender, the switch-hitting Doumit has a legitimate bat.
Since the plan is for Doumit to frequently serve as the designated hitter, and both he and Mauer have had their share of durability issues, there's little doubt that the Twins will carry a third catcher. For now, Drew Butera would appear to be the front-runner for that spot, but former top prospect J.R. Towles is on hand to provide competition. Eventually, the Twins would love for Chris Herrmann, who posted a .385 OBP between Single-A and Double-A last year, to work his way into the mix.
Last year Gardenhire had no choice but to cycle between the likes of Butera, Rene Rivera and Steve Holm when Mauer went down, and that can be attributed to some extremely poor planning by the front office. They'll be entering this season much better prepared for such a scenario, with a number of intriguing candidates capable of keeping Butera and Rivera firmly planted on the bench or in Rochester.
Of course, the hope is that sorting through those candidates will never be an issue, because Mauer stays healthy and combines with Doumit to turn the catcher position back into an offensive asset. Vilified a year ago, Joe seems more determined than ever to make it happen.
Predicted Hitting Line for Mauer: .310/.370/.460, 10 HR, 75 RBI