As most people reading this are probably aware, I've been fairly critical of the Twins this offseason. They have parted with some valuable players, taken dangerous gambles on Alexi Casilla and Tsuyoshi Nishioka, overpaid Matt Capps by several million dollars, and invested a great deal of hope in two aging veteran free agents after outstanding seasons they'd be hard-pressed to recreate.
But, I will confess that I'm probably being a bit too hard on the Twins this winter. I've been unimpressed by their frugal approach over the past few months, but the truth is that they actually made the biggest blockbuster move of any team this offseason. They just did it a year early.
Cliff Lee's $120 million contract with the Phillies wouldn't have been the largest handed to a free agent this offseason had the Twins not swooped in early with an eight-year, $184 million mega deal for Joe Mauer. We might not have fully appreciated it at the time because it took place in spring training, wedged between a very active offseason and the opening of a new stadium, but the Mauer deal was monumental.
Many fans are already speaking about the celebrated extension begrudgingly, and it's true that Mauer's $11.5 million raise going into 2011 (equivalent to the price of an elite free agent) is a big reason they've been restricted in their offseason activities. Maneuvering around that $23 million makes for some tough decisions, and while I don't necessarily agree with the way the front office has addressed those decisions I can at least understand them a little better.
While fans in Philadelphia are absolutely ecstatic about their prized offseason acquisition (if I hear "FOUR ACES!" one more time I'm going to lose it), Twins fans seem almost ambivalent about Mauer. That's because his signing took place a year ago, and his 2010 campaign was far less extraordinary than the one before it.
But I'm thinking positive here. The Twins have not done a lot to help themselves this offseason, and on paper they look to me like the division's third-best team right now, but Mauer is the biggest reason I would never dream of counting them out in the AL Central.
It's true that Mauer didn't perform like a $23 million player last season, but we shouldn't let his drop from superhuman to merely great make us forget that a year ago he was widely viewed as one of the two best position players in all of baseball. He endured one injury after another last summer and his numbers undoubtedly suffered because of it, but he got his knee fixed up with a minor surgery at the end of the season and enters 2011 as one of the team's few key players without major health concerns.
If he can stay healthy and produce at the level he did in 2009, Mauer can effectively carry the club. That 2009 team that surrounded him was flush with flaws; several holes in the lineup and no starting pitcher with an ERA under four. It was the gargantuan five-month season from Mauer that tipped the scales in a hard-fought struggle with Detroit for the division title, and that performance rightfully earned the catcher MVP honors.
As I see it, this 2011 Twins team is a distilled version of the one before it, with several question marks and little in the way of depth to prevent disaster should dominos fall the wrong way. I've made no secret of the fact that I'm a bit down on them, but I'll never count the Twins out.
Not as long as they have the Mauer factor.