There had been some rumblings that the Twins were considering activating Joe Mauer earlier than expected -- perhaps as soon as today -- but it now appears that they'll stick with the original plan and bring him back on Friday in time for a three-game weekend series against the Royals.
Along with a fair amount of well warranted excitement for fans, Mauer's return will bring with it a number of interesting decisions for the Twins brain trust. The first thing they'll need to decide is which player to remove from the 25-man roster in order to make space for Mauer to come off the disabled list. Jose Morales, who is hitting .361 after going 5-for-8 in his past two games, has become a popular choice to stick around as a third catcher upon Mauer's return. Yet, this wouldn't be the correct choice for Morales or for the team. With Mauer unlikely to spend much (if any) time at DH, there will probably only be about eight at-bats per week available at the catcher position -- splitting that between two players is pointless. Morales is a nice guy to have in the organization and looks to be the backup of the future, but he should be playing more regularly than he would be as a third catcher with the big-league club right now. Unless Mike Redmond is placed on the DL (which wouldn't seem to be such a bad idea considering how beat up he looks), Morales should and will be the odd man out upon Mauer's return.
The more interesting dilemma posed by Mauer's activation is how to work the catcher into the lineup. Alexi Casilla has been a mess in the No. 2 spot, leading one to speculate that Mauer might slip in there and knock Casilla to the bottom of the order. Doing so would make sense, since Mauer seems a good for for the two-hole and a 1-4 order of Denard Span, Mauer, Justin Morneau and Jason Kubel would put the Twins' four best hitters in position to receive the most at-bats.
The obvious flaw with this arrangement, however, is that it puts four consecutive lefties at the top of the Twins' lineup. Even when the Twins are facing a right-handed starter, this is a bad idea, because it makes the Twins extremely vulnerable to left-handed relievers late in close games. We saw how harmful this can be on Sunday, when both Morneau and Kubel got an opportunity to bat with the bases loaded and the Twins down by two and were both blown away by Cleveland LOOGY Tony Sipp. While Span, Mauer, Morneau and -- to a lesser extent -- Kubel can all generally hold their own against lefties, they're all much more susceptible to tough left-handed relievers than the typical right-handed hitter and there needs to be some break between the four to protect against situational lefty relievers.
So, who can fill this role? The list of potential candidates is underwhelming to say the least. Casilla, thanks to his high placement in the lineup, currently ranks fifth on the team in plate appearances, which has magnified his extremely poor production. Nick Punto has gotten on base at a decent clip up to this point (.344), but his overall offensive production (.236 AVG and .255 SLG) have not been suitable for a No. 2 hitter. Michael Cuddyer and Joe Crede don't profile as No. 2 hitters in general, and certainly not with the way they've been hitting thus far. Delmon Young and Carlos Gomez have been dreadful at the plate.
Those are pretty much all of your right-handed options, and up to this point none of them look remotely deserving of a spot near the top of the lineup. If I were making the decision, I suppose at this point I'd probably try Punto in the two-spot since he's at least been taking decent at-bats, while maybe trying Brendan Harris in that spot on days when he gets into the lineup over Punto or Casilla. That's not an ideal situation, though, and unless one of the team's struggling right-handed hitters can step up, putting together a reasonable 1-5 is going to be a challenge. For lack of appealing right-handed options at the No. 2 spot, Ron Gardenhire might just end up writing in the four lefties back-to-back, even though he rightfully despises that notion.