Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Changing Places?

The hot topic in Twins Territory over the past couple days has been talk of a position switch for catcher Joe Mauer, specifically to third base. The notion has been brought up numerous times in the past by sportswriters and fans alike, but lately it's come to the forefront of people's attention due to an article in Monday's Star Tribune penned by columnist Jim Souhan. Pioneer Press columnist Tom Powers also mentioned the idea on the same day, but for the purposes of this post I'll stick with Souhan's article, which goes into more depth.

The articles reportedly raised the ire of Ron Gardenhire, as well as Mauer. I'm actually inclined to agree with them.

The subject of Mauer moving to third base has been debated exhaustively ever since the catcher suffered a major knee injury back in his rookie season of 2004, and the arguments presented in Souhan's article are the same ones that have been brought up by almost every other proponent of the idea over the past few years: Mauer has constantly been bothered by leg injuries; he's athletic enough to handle a position switch; he'd fill an organizational need at third base; so on and so forth.

Yes, Mauer's young career has been plagued by injuries, but few of them have actually been directly related to catching. He's hurt his hamstring and his quadricep while running the bases. In 2004, he suffered a devastating knee injury while sliding to catch a fly ball in foul territory. These are injuries that can happen to a player at any position -- including third base. The idea that a guy can move to third and automatically avoid injuries for the rest of his career is ridiculous. How's that working out for Corey Koskie?

In my opinion, Mauer is the best defensive catcher in the league. I don't think I'm alone there. He can control an opposing team's running game better than perhaps any other backstop in the majors, and he does a good job of calling games and running the pitching staff. I think people tend to oversimplify the process of moving him to third base. Yes, he's a great ballplayer and a tremendous athlete, but that doesn't mean he'd be able to just hop on over to the hot corner and pick up right where he left off defensively. Mauer has essentially played nothing but catcher throughout his entire professional career. There would be a considerable learning curve involved.

Souhan claims that by moving Mauer to third base, the Twins would be "plugging a gaping organizational hole." Yeah, while creating another. Mike Redmond is a nice player, but he'll be entering the last year of his contract with the Twins next year and he'll be turning 37 next May. He just won't be around much longer. The organization's top catching prospect is Jose Morales, who the Twins just don't seem to be very high on for whatever reason, and beyond him there are no catchers in the minors that look like they'll be making an impact in the big leagues any time soon. I'd actually say the Twins' system is deeper at third base than it is at catcher.

On top of all that, moving Mauer away from catcher would greatly decrease his offensive value. Even though he's had a down year this year, his numbers still look great in context when you consider that the average AL catcher has hit .254/.316/.395. In contrast, the average third baseman has hit .264/.333/.426 for a .759 OPS which is coincidentally exactly the same as the OPS Mauer has posted since returning from his quad injury in early June.

If it comes down to the point where there are truly no other viable options available, I'd hesitantly be in favor of a position switch for Mauer. I just don't think we're anywhere near that point yet. He's still only 24 years old, and less than one year removed from a season in which he won a major-league batting title while catching full-time and missing almost no time due to injury. It has become pretty annoying that every time Mauer has some sort of ailment, the position switch debate rears its ugly head. Mauer is a catcher, and that's one of the biggest reasons he's such a special player in the first place.

***

While we're on the subject of Souhan's article, I'd like to say that I think the columnist took a few unwarranted shots at Mauer in his article. I'll address a couple comments in particular:
In spring training he [Mauer] caused a scare with what was termed a "stress reaction." I've spoken with trainers in other sports who have told me there is no such thing.
No such thing? So the team just made it up? As SBG notes, there have been plenty of documented cases of stress reactions in sports. Whatever "trainers" Souhan spoke to must have been confused by the way the question was asked, or they're just really bad at their jobs.

Another tidbit that bothered me:
While Mauer has struggled and convalesced, his backup, Mike Redmond, has played with what seems to be a broken finger and myriad bruises. When offered a chance to X-ray the finger, Redmond declined, saying he's going to play whether it's broken or not. Redmond also said he does not need to be "100 percent" to play.

Mauer's reputation in the clubhouse has taken a hit while Redmond, Hunter, Michael Cuddyer, Justin Morneau, Jason Bartlett and Nick Punto, among others, have played through injuries and Mauer has eased and iced his way back into the lineup.
There is a fairly large difference between playing through a broken finger on your non-throwing hand and playing through a pulled hamstring. If you can't run, you can't help the team much. Obviously, Redmond's injury isn't having a significantly negative effect on his performance. I'm not trying to downplay what Redmond is doing -- the guy is a trooper -- but I somehow doubt he'd be in the lineup with a bad quad or hamstring strain that was impeding his ability to run or crouch. I find it funny that Jason Bartlett, who Souhan applauds as a guy that can play through injuries, just recently missed a chunk of time with a hamstring strain of his own. I also find it funny that Souhan includes Punto on his list of battlers, despite the fact that Punto's career prior to last year was plagued by injuries that caused him to miss time constantly.

Has Mauer's reputation in the clubhouse really "taken a hit," or is Souhan just saying that without any tangible basis, for the purposes of making his disingenuous diatribe more plausible? I'm going to go with the latter. I think Souhan was quite a bit more credible as a beat writer than he is as a columnist, so perhaps he is the one who truly needs to switch positions.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

very well said

driveby commentator said...

I think Souhan was quite a bit more credible as a beat writer than he is as a columnist, so perhaps he is the one who truly needs to switch positions.

Oh, so that's what it is! I couldn't figure out what happened. I moved away from the Twin Cities awhile ago. And in the last year or so, I started reading the Strib again online. I was wondering how the hell I used to like Souhan and WTF happened to him. And that explains it perfectly. He's a Strib sports columnist. Man, what makes that job goes to a person's head?! It's like how some professors treat their tenure status. They feel they can mail it in and/or make up shit on the fly -- doing a disservice for all involved.

P.S. I emailed the douche bag about stress reactions earlier tonight before I started scoping the blogs. At the least, it should be recorded in his file this latest act of gross negligence. Glad to see he is getting hammered for his column.

S.Chancellor said...

I agree on every point Souhan made. Mauer has been injury prone, and he doesn't play when he is nicked up.

Mauer is a hometown kid, so is a natural fan favorite. But let's face it - other than one great season, he is a brittle .290 hitter with limited power.

It is what it is; I have nothing against Mauer. He is a good, patient line-drive hitter who if he can stay healthy will have a productive career.

But I would rather get his numbers at 3B, where he has a better chance of staying healthy. The Twins can always plug in some journeyman Catcher.

ubelmann said...

The thing that really pisses me off is that this idea wouldn't get nearly so much play if Punto didn't have such an abysmal season.

Nick N. said...

But let's face it - other than one great season, he is a brittle .290 hitter with limited power.

He's only played three full seasons, and he's only 24, so I think it's still way too early to be determining what he is or isn't.

But I would rather get his numbers at 3B, where he has a better chance of staying healthy. The Twins can always plug in some journeyman Catcher.

The point is that it's a lot easier to find a decent-hitting journeyman at third base than at catcher. Plus, catcher is the most important defensive position on the field, and you're not going to be able to go out and find some inexpensive "journeyman" who will excel on offense and defense the way Mauer does; with the majority of guys, it's either/or. So if you want your journeyman catcher, you're either going to get a Henry Blanco who hits .220 with good defense, or a Scott Hatteberg, who can hit a bit but doesn't field the position well.

Nick M. said...

I can't disagree with those assertions. Mauer's combination of skills makes him the best overall catcher in the American League and possibly the major leagues. (The argument could at least be made) This debate isn't worth having until Mauer has been injured so much that he's ineffective behind the plate and catching starts to inhibit his offensive skills. We aren't close to that point, so this becomes a debate that only exists so that uncreative, hack columnists have something to write about on the days they aren't discussing giving a contract to Torii Hunter.

Karleeee said...

You rock my world.
Pretty much taking the words out of my mouth.

valdespino said...

i think much of the 'clubhouse buzz' comes from Torii with two faces so that should be Toriiii with four i's.

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