As we roll into mid-March, it's about the time for us to get started on something that has become an annual spring tradition around here: the Position Analysis series. Each year we go through every position for the Twins and take a look at potential battles, project the likely starter, and analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the position.
As always, we'll kick off with catcher, which once again projects to be a position of strength for the Twins:
Likely Starter: Joe Mauer
2007 Stats: .293/.382/.426, 7 HR, 60 RBI
Potential Backups: Mike Redmond, Jose Morales
Joe Mauer was unable to replicate his 2006 numbers last year, but that shouldn't really come as a big surprise. Can a 24-year-old really be expected to hit .347 two years in a row? It's surely unfair to hold it against Mauer that he "only" hit .293 with a .382 OBP last season (ranking third and second in the majors among catchers with 400-plus plate appearances, respectively), but there were a couple aspects of his game that gave cause for concern, namely power and health.
In 2006, Mauer appeared in 140 of the Twins' games and made 608 plate appearances. Last year, those numbers dropped to 109 and 471 due to various injuries, mostly to his legs. This prompted renewed calls for a position change, but for the time being Mauer is sticking at catcher. The hope is that he can stay in the lineup more this season.
Last year's health issues seemed more like a prolonged string of bad luck than anything, so I'm fairly confident he'll be in the lineup more this year. What I'm not really sure about is whether his power will materialize. Each year since he's entered the league, we've been saying the Mauer is going to grow into that 6-foot-5 frame and start showing some legitimate power. It hasn't happened. Last year he managed only seven home runs and 37 total extra-base hits, compared to 13 and 53 in '06. Obviously that is somewhat attributable to the fact that he made 22.5 percent fewer plate appearances, but as the 79-point drop in slugging percentage will attest, Mauer is clearly not showing the expected type of growth in his power game. There's reason to think that the power will come this year if he can stay healthy, but we really have no way of knowing.
Looking at Mauer's 2007 splits, there are a few things that stick out. For one thing, he was significantly better on the road than at home. When playing away from the Metrodome, Joe Mauer pieced together a .342/.436/.520 line that is roughly the same as his amazing overall hitting line in 2006. Yet, under the Teflon roof, Mauer struggled to the tune of .246/.336/.333. This massive home/away split is rather inexplicable, and I don't know that there's really any evidence to show that it's a systematic problem that can be expected to continue. (Although, it is worth noting that for whatever reason, Mauer has posted a better OPS away than at home in each of his four major-league seasons.)
The other split worth looking at is Mauer's disparity versus lefties and righties. Against right-handed pitchers last year, Mauer hit .299/.395/.481 with 32 extra-base hits; against lefties, just .283/.356/.319 with only five XBHs (all doubles). Considering Mauer carries a left-handed stick, the disparity is hardly earth-shattering, and in reality his line against southpaws wasn't really that bad (except for the abysmal lack of power). We may have expected more from Mauer against left-handers considering that he posted a .331/.401/.425 line against them in 2006, but my guess is that his success against them that year was something of a fluke, and we probably shouldn't expect him to post superhuman numbers against them.
Fortunately, this is something that the Twins can easily remedy, because Mauer's backup, Mike Redmond, is a right-handed hitter who has great success against left-handers. For his career, Redmond has posted an outstanding .332/.389/.436 line against southpaws; last year it was an even more impressive .330/.410/.443. If Ron Gardenhire can use Redmond properly -- spelling Mauer about once a week and almost always against left-handed starters -- this team stands to get fantastic production from the catcher position once again this year.
Predicted 2008 Hitting Line for Mauer: .315/.405/.500, 15 HR, 70 RBI