September 28, 2004

That Damn Knee

This has been a great year to be a Twins fan, with Johan Santana on his way to a Cy Young award, Justin Morneau establishing himself as an offensive force for years to come, and the team heading to the postseason with their third straight American League Central championship.

However, along with all the good stuff has come an awful ongoing story for the Twins, with Joe Mauer's knee injury. Mauer initially hurt his knee on a freak play in the second game of his career, which is enough to make you wonder what sort of a karmic gods the Twins angered. Then, after he rehabbed the injury, came back, and looked like a future Hall of Famer, the knee started acting up again and sidelined him for the entire second half.

Now what we're left with is nothing but questions. Can Mauer come back and play this year? Can he contribute in the playoffs? If so, will it only be as a designated hitter or bat off the bench? Could he catch occasionally? Will he be totally healthy to start next season? Can he be an everyday catcher?

There are other questions, but even thinking about them depresses me. One stupid injury has turned Mauer from the best prospect in baseball and a guy playing far better in his rookie year than even the most optimistic expectations for him suggested, into just another catcher with bad wheels and an iffy future behind the plate.

Even if Mauer is able to return fully healthy next year and even if he can catch 100 games in 2005, there's no doubt in my mind that his knee injury this season will take a significant chunk of his future value away at some point or another. Hell, it already has, as Mauer, who hit .308/.369/.570 in the 35 games he was able to play, lost out on his chance to win the AL Rookie of the Year award this season.

However, even someone as pessimistic as me has to try to look for some bright spots in all of this, and thankfully there's some news in that area to latch on to. From the Minneapolis Star Tribune (and the Official Twins Beat Writer of Aaron's Baseball Blog, LaVelle E. Neal):

Joe Mauer did as ordered last week. For the first time in more than two months, he got down in a catcher's squat.

"It took a while to get back up," Mauer said with a wry grin. "I hadn't been down there in a while."

The event occurred Friday at the Cleveland Clinic, at the request of specialist Dr. John Bergfeld. Bergfeld determined that Mauer's surgically repaired left knee would need more rehabilitation, not additional surgery. And, perhaps equally important, Mauer would not require a position change.

The question of whether or not his catching days are numbered has definitely been the elephant in the room whenever Mauer's injury is discussed. Much of the focus over the past couple months has been on simply getting him healthy and back playing, but how healthy and exactly where he'll do his playing is almost as important.

As I've said here before, as a catcher he's a potential future Hall of Famer, a once-in-a-generation player, and perennial MVP candidate. As a designated hitter, he's just a good designated hitter, of which there are many around baseball. There is a difference between what actually happens and what a doctor says when his patient is trying to come back from an injury, but it's certainly nice to see "Mauer" and "not require a position change" in the same sentence.

The story goes on:

Mauer took ground balls at third base Sunday in Cleveland, but just to get him moving around the field.

"I was like, 'Oh man, it's going to be in the papers that I'm switching to third base,' " he said.

I relayed this quote yesterday to someone who was very skeptical about the third base workout being nothing more than a workout, but I believe it. First of all, if Mauer was actually going to stop catching and move to third base, I seriously doubt the Twins would have him working there a week before the postseason starts, particularly when there's no chance of him playing third base in the postseason.

Beyond that, I've heard nothing from anyone involved with the Twins -- from Mauer to Ron Gardenhire, Terry Ryan, the team medical staff, and now Dr. John Bergfeld at the Cleveland Clinic -- that says they expect Mauer to change positions in the near future.

A little more:

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire repeated what he has said throughout the summer: If Mauer can return in time to help as a pinch hitter in the playoffs, fine. But the main priority is for him to be a full-time catcher next season.

"I don't want him to come into next year with any doubts in his mind that his knee is going to make it," Gardenhire said. "We will get by this year. I want to make sure he is healthy for next year."

It's fairly rare for Gardenhire and I to be in complete agreement, but that's the case here. In fact, I hope Mauer is not ready to play this October. Considering all that Mauer and his knee have been through this year, I don't think there's any need to risk further problems in order for him to get a few pinch-hitting chances in the playoffs. Jason Kubel will fill that role just fine, and I won't constantly be worried about whether or not he's limping on his way to first base.

The saddest thing about greatness is when it's gone before anyone even got a chance to witness it. Sports history is filled with future Hall of Famers who never reached anything close to their full potential because of injuries and I'm just hoping that Mauer is not destined to be another name on that depressing list. The goal for him right now should be for us to see him squatting behind the plate when Santana delivers his first pitch on Opening Day 2005.

Today at The Hardball Times:

- The Baseball Time Machine: Greg Ruth (by Steve Treder)

- Three Thoughts: 9/29/04 (by Ben Jacobs)

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