Joe Mauer has always steadfastly believed that his value is highest and his impact greatest when his smooth swing is in the lineup on offense and he's crouching behind the plate on defense.
He somewhat reluctantly backed off his insistence on catching as much as possible last season as the Minnesota Twins urged him to spend more time at first base and designated hitter to reduce the wear and tear on a body that broke down repeatedly in 2011.
The approach was a smashing success. Mauer played in a career-high 147 games and returned to form as one of the best hitters in the American League after a disastrous 2011 season.
Now that he is completely healthy as the Twins prepare for spring training, Mauer fully plans on spending more time at catcher this season.
And GM Terry Ryan thinks it could be a lot more time.
"I've been preparing for the season to be the everyday catcher,'' Mauer said on Friday night as the Twins opened their annual fan festival. "I can go over to first if they need me to do that. I can DH if they need me to do that, too. The way I've been preparing is catching every day.''
Things couldn't have gone much worse for Mauer in 2011, the first season of an eight-year, $184 million contract extension that kept the hometown star away from the big-market teams. Numerous injuries, including a mysteriously vague "bi-lateral leg weakness,'' contributed to a career-low .287 average with just three homers in 82 games. The monumental struggles led the once-adoring home crowd to turn on Mauer, occasionally booing him when he stepped to the plate late in the year.
He bounced back in a big way in 2012, hitting .319 and leading the league with a .416 on-base percentage. He also found a balance between catching, designated hitter and first base that kept his legs fresh and his bat in the lineup all season long. He only caught 74 games, was the designated hitter for 42 games and spent the rest of the time at first base, in part because Justin Morneau was still working his way back from concussion problems and several other nagging injuries that had plagued him the previous two seasons.
"I think it worked out real well last year as far as handling Joe and keeping him on the field and plenty of at-bats, all those at-bats we got and not beating him up too much,'' manager Ron Gardenhire said. "I don't see any reason to change it too awful much from there. Games are going to dictate it and the way we're playing is going to dictate it, and how people are swinging. But the important thing is, Morneau and Mauer both, keep them on the field, keep them in there.''
Morneau is healthy again as well, which would seem to reduce the need for Mauer to play first base. Ryan seems to agree that Mauer is ready to handle a substantial increase in his catching duties.
"We're looking for him to catch somewhere around 120 games,'' Ryan said. "The other at-bats will come, some at DH and some at first base. But when you start talking about an everyday catcher, when you get him up to 125 games, that's a full load.''
That's quite a big step up for such a valuable piece of the Twins puzzle. Many in the organization thought that the rigors of catching were the biggest reason for Mauer's struggles in 2011. With so much of the team's payroll invested in him for the next six seasons, it's paramount that his left-handed swing is there as much as possible for a team that has lost 191 games over the last two years.
"You have to have his bat in the lineup,'' closer Glen Perkins said. "Having him out changes everything. If we get a scouting report on the Tigers without Prince Fielder or Miguel Cabrera, it changes things. And to get his bat in the lineup on a daily basis is the most important thing. And I think they did a really good job with that last season.''
Gardenhire said if all goes well and Mauer remains healthy, he doesn't have a problem with putting him at catcher more this season.
"Well, I'll send him out to the bullpen and he can work out there,'' Gardenhire deadpanned. "I mean, if Joe wants to catch more, he's going to tell me. That's the great thing, we talk. I talk to him every day about, `Hey, this is my plan. This is what I'd like to do.'''
Long one of the Twin Cities' most eligible bachelors, Mauer got married this offseason. The leg and knee problems of two years ago are long behind him, and he's eager to help a team that is used to contending for AL Central titles to recover after two straight last-place finishes. The way he sees it, the best way for him to do that is to get behind the plate and call the game.
"Obviously the last two seasons haven't went according to plan,'' Mauer said. "We expect a winner out here. Everybody does. Ever since I've been here we've been pretty darn good and we're trying to get back to that level.''