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Mauer would be great catch

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / May 27, 2009
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MINNEAPOLIS - How about this for a pregame presentation fantasy: Red Sox catcher Joe Mauer stands on the mound and J.D. Drew trots in from right field. Drew takes off his No. 7 jersey and gives it to Mauer. Underneath, Drew is now wearing No. 77.

OK, it's a little corny and a little far-fetched, but if Jason Varitek can hold on for another year, the timing would be perfect.

Mauer, who will be 27 when he becomes a free agent after next season, could solve the Red Sox' catching problems for almost a decade. We're making a big assumption - perhaps wishful thinking - that the Twins won't be able to sign Mauer, a native Minnesotan, to a lifetime contract that likely would take the form of $200 million for 10 years.

The Twins should have new revenue streams with their $400 million Target Field opening next season. That likely would make the commitment possible - unless they know more about the back condition that sidelined the catcher in spring training and the first month of the season than they're letting on.

Mauer and Justin Morneau are the faces of the Twins organization. Mauer is a great hitter - already a two-time batting champion - and a great athlete. After next season, he could be the most sought-after free agent in years, which is why the Twins may have to take a big gulp and pony up the biggest contract ever.

If they don't, the usual suspects - Red Sox, Yankees, Mets, etc. - will be waiting.

The contract appears to be a distant thought for Mauer because he has spent so much time trying to come back from a back injury that took many weeks to diagnose and treat.

On Monday, Mauer was not in the lineup against the Red Sox. He sat for eight innings, then picked up a bat in the ninth to pinch hit for backup catcher Mike Redmond.

With Jonathan Papelbon on to protect a 6-3 lead, Mauer put a beautiful swing on the ball and drove it over the wall in right-center for a two-run homer, though the Twins still lost, 6-5.

It was his 11th homer in 81 at-bats (he had 9 in 536 at-bats last season; his career high is 13 in 2006). He has driven in 31 runs in May.

Despite going 0 for 3 last night, Mauer is batting .429 with an off-the-charts 1.400 OPS. He has a .322 career batting average. Last year, he won his first Gold Glove.

The only knock there has ever been on Mauer was that he didn't hit for power, that he had a little Wade Boggs/Ichiro Suzuki thing going, where he didn't want to sacrifice batting average for power. But Mauer says he hasn't changed a thing about the way he swings the bat.

"Everybody asks me about the power, but I really don't have any rhyme or reason as to why it's happening," he said. "I think maybe I understand a little bit more what pitchers are trying to do to me in certain situations. I think it helps that I'm a catcher and maybe understand how pitchers think. But I haven't changed anything swinging or anything like that.

"Honestly, I know guys say this all the time, but I mean it. I'm not trying to hit home runs.

"It seems every time in my career when I've tried to, I mess up or I make an out, and when I don't try to hit them, they start flying out, so I understand that I have to keep with the way I'm used to hitting and not try to do something I can't do.

"If the home runs come as a result of a good swing, that's great."

Who knows what Mauer would have done had he not missed most of the first month recovering from kidney surgery in December and then inflammation of the joint between his hip and back?

"It was tough for me," he said. "The toughest part was just not knowing what it was. Finally it seemed we got on track. I had hoped we could have figured out long before that, but we had to rule things out.

"When I first came back, I went five or six games where I only played seven innings, so it was sort of my spring training period. I'm still trying to build my legs up so I'm catching every day, and I feel I'm very close to the point where I'm doing that.

"Now it's just a matter of paying more attention to building up my core, watching my legs, and keeping an eye on that. It's just a matter now of getting into catching shape more than anything and just treating regular soreness that you have being a catcher. So far it's working pretty good."

Well, "pretty good" might be understating things just a tad.

Mauer won't speak much about his future or contract discussions, nor will Twins general manager Bill Smith, whose emphasis throughout spring training was on getting his star player on the field. But at some point this season, the Twins and Mauer might begin talking in earnest about an extension. Nobody in Minnesota wants the native son to leave.

However, the Twins are a small-market team. The Pohlad family is one of the wealthiest in America, but they have run the Twins like a business. They have kept costs low.

It wasn't long ago that the Twins were unable to afford Torii Hunter and Johan Santana. Both were extremely popular in the Twin Cities. The Twins have not been afraid to part ways with Jeff Reardon, Tom Brunansky, Gary Gaetti, Rick Aguilera, and Frank Viola when the price got high.

That would be the Red Sox' hope. That would be the fantasy.

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