Twins GM: Mauer can be a .300 hitter again, will play 1B

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) Once one of the game's great hitters, Joe Mauer hasn't been the same force in the batter's box for two years now.

Mauer is coming off one of the worst offensive seasons of his career, but Minnesota Twins general manager Terry Ryan believes he can return to being a difference-maker at the plate.

''I don't want to put limits on Joe Mauer, but I certainly think he can get in the .300s,'' Ryan said Tuesday. ''I'm looking more at some of those other numbers. His strikeouts were high. His walks were lower. On-base percentage was lower. I think he can do better than that.''

Mauer hit a career-worst .265 this season and struck out a career-high 112 times. His on-base percentage was a career-worst .338 and despite posting a career high in games played, he walked just 67 times.

The troubling downward trend for the three-time American League batting champion started with a concussion in 2013. He hit just .277 last season and followed that up with the pedestrian numbers this year, leading to more criticism of the former hometown hero who signed an eight-year, $184 million contract after his MVP season in 2009.

The move from catcher to first base was supposed to help him stay healthy and bolster his offense even more, but that hasn't materialized yet. Given that he's on the books through the 2018 season, the Twins sorely need him to more closely resemble the impact player he was for the first nine years of his career.

''He can really improve on his numbers,'' Ryan said. ''He struck out more than he's ever had. The shift got into him a little bit. I don't know about a batting title, but I believe he can get back into the .300s yes.''

Ryan said Mauer would remain the team's first baseman for 2016, even as the team tries to find a way to get slugger Miguel Sano out of the designated hitter spot. Sano was called up in July, and he galvanized an inconsistent Twins offense with 18 home runs in 80 games. His debut was one of the biggest reasons the Twins were able to put four straight 90-loss seasons behind them and remain in contention for a wild card going into the final weekend of the season.

''He cannot get into the mindset that he's a DH,'' Ryan said.

Sano played third base in the minor leagues and Ryan said Tuesday that the club doesn't think moving Trevor Plouffe to the outfield is a suitable option to make room. Though Ryan didn't discuss specific players, that would seem to indicate Plouffe could be traded this winter.

''I think that's something that they're going to have to address this offseason,'' Plouffe said earlier this week. ''I don't think I'll be part of that conversation whatsoever, but that's why I don't think about it. I've said all along, `We want that guy if he can help our team,' and clearly he came and just helped our team tremendously and it was a pleasure batting behind him and seeing his at-bats.''

Among other highlights from Ryan's wrapup of the surprising 83-79 season:

-All of the coaches from Paul Molitor's staff have been invited back. ''He did a remarkable job for somebody who has never done it,'' Ryan said of Molitor.

-Second baseman Brian Dozier will have an MRI on his hip but no other Twins player has an injury that is concerning enough to consider offseason surgery.

-Ryan would like to speak with free-agent outfielder Torii Hunter sooner rather than later to see if there is mutual interest in the 40-year-old returning for another season. ''When we signed him, we talked about what our expectations should be: clubhouse influence, dugout, mentor, productivity, playing right field, giving us some sort of presence in a lineup,'' Ryan said. ''Check, check, check, check, check.''

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