Time has not been an ally. Since he returned June 17 after two months on the disabled list, Mauer is a .300 hitter, but without the same power or durability. He has not been able to play himself back into peak baseball shape. He has made his career debuts at first base and even in right field. He has sat out with what has been called "general soreness."
This baseball season is notable for the number of star players having significantly down years. Age is almost certainly a factor in the declines of Ichiro Suzuki, 37; Magglio Ordoñez, 37; Vladimir Guerrero, 36; Chone Figgins, 33' and possibly even Adam Dunn, 31; and Jason Bay, Jayson Werth and Vernon Wells, all 32-year-old outfielders.
Much rarer and more mysterious are the down years by players who should be in the sweet spot of their careers: Hanley Ramirez, 27; Carl Crawford, 29; and Aaron Hill, 29. Mauer, 28, also belongs in this group, though his status appears even more problematic because he is a catcher who is in the first season of a contract that averages $23 million a year for eight years. His future at the position and the enormity of the contract have been called into question.
"He loves catching and he can impact a game back there more so than any catcher in the game -- offensively and defensively," said Minnesota general manager Bill Smith, "and for right now he's our catcher. That's where we sit. That's what he wants."
The operative words are "right now." The Twins are in no position to make a judgment on Mauer's future this season, because that is not the true version of Mauer out there. He was in no shape to start the season and has been unable to catch up.
The Twins did not have Mauer undergo knee surgery last offseason until December. In spring training, he needed an injection to lubricate the knee joint and barely played. Two weeks into the regular season, his legs were so weak and unprepared for the rigors of catching that he was shut down for two months. He has been playing catch-up ever since.
"Joe has a program he's been working diligently on with our strength and conditioning coach," Smith said. "They are working on offseason plans and have got that well underway. We want all of our players to be healthy at the end of the season so in the offseason they can work healthy and not just be rehabbing."
The key for the Twins is not how Mauer finishes this season -- it's how he begins next season. In a perfect world for Minnesota, Mauer gets through this year without any further complications, returns to full offseason and spring training regimens, and is in shape to be an MVP candidate and a $23 million-a-year franchise player behind the plate in 2012.
Minnesota would love for Mauer to follow the arc of Lance Berkman, who played miserably in 2010 while compromised by a knee that was not fully healed. Berkman used the offseason to get back in shape, and has bounced back with a .977 OPS for St. Louis. Berkman, 35, is seven years older than Mauer.
"Anybody who misses two months in the middle of the season is going to be behind the curve a little bit," Smith said. "Any time you're behind the pitchers a little bit it's going to be tough. He's going to be a great player for us and we're all looking forward to it."
It's a smart strategy by the Twins: write off this season as a lost one for Mauer and don't be tempted to make long-term decisions off a compromised version of a player. But such a year -- on top of a myriad of injuries in the past -- does bring a reckoning into play with just one more setback. If Mauer breaks down early in 2012, then yes, the Twins must look into getting him out from behind home plate. Mauer, who never has driven in 100 runs or scored 100, is worth the $23 million a year only when he is a full-time catcher. But if he cannot hold up as a catcher, the Twins have to explore ways to keep him on the field in any capacity.
Mauer's cameo in right field was more of an oddity out of necessity than any grand plan. Due to injuries, manager Ron Gardenhire's options for the position that day were two catchers (Mauer and Drew Butera), a first baseman (Justin Morneau) and a DH (Jim Thome). But Mauer is a skilled enough athlete to someday give the Twins real options.
Meanwhile, Mauer continues to look nothing like the MVP he was in 2009. He has hit only one home run this year -- making him one of only 12 major leaguers with 250 at-bats and zero or one home runs -- and has 25 RBIs. A career .327 hitter entering this year, he is hitting 36 points below his norm (.291 -- though don't rule out the chance he could finish at .300). He has hit ground balls with more frequency than ever before. And Target Field, where he has one home run in 379 at-bats, is swallowing his power. Mauer has a career .789 OPS at Target Field, down almost 100 points from the Metrodome (.882), the Twins' home before last season.
Mauer essentially has become a singles-hitting part-time catcher this season. Gardenhire has started him behind the plate on four straight days only twice this year -- and one of those occasions was back in April, when he was too weak to handle it. Take a look at Gardenhire's usage pattern of Mauer behind the plate and you'll see a huge difference in how much he leans on him. Here is how often Gardenhire has started Mauer at catcher for as many as four straight days and five straight days:
This much is certain: Both the Twins and Mauer prefer that he return to a rigorous catching schedule. Mauer believes in catching the way Cal Ripken believed in playing shortstop. It is his passion and his identity. At 29 next April, Mauer is plenty young enough to stay behind the plate for years. He has caught fewer games in his career than Brian McCann or Yadier Molina, and only 30 more than Russell Martin, all three of whom made their respective All-Star teams this year and are in their late 20s. With an offseason to rejuvenate, he can become that kind of catcher again. The Twins aren't ready to contemplate what happens if he cannot.
Look no further than Chicago to understand how the splash of a big contract can become an albatross. Five years ago, the Cubs handed Alfonso Soriano an eight-year contract worth $136 million. Soriano was 30 years old. He was coming off a season in which he hit 46 home runs and stole 41 bases. The Cubs gave him the money on the premise that he could be a dynamic center fielder who could run -- that was the consensus of their baseball evaluators. Soriano played just 12 games in center field. It was a brutal miscalculation. Not only did Soriano need to be stashed in left field, where he has still done harm, but he has also aged quickly and lost his explosiveness. He became just another corner outfielder who was getting impact center fielder money, the kind of huge miscalculation that last week helped cost Cubs general manager Jim Hendry his job.