Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Position Analysis: Catcher

Every March, I go through the Twins' roster position-by-position to project a likely starter and sort through potential backups. Today, we kick off this year's iteration of the Position Analysis series by taking a look at the catcher spot, where a hometown hero will be returning to defend his MVP crown...

Likely Starter: Joe Mauer
2009 Stats: .365/.444/.587, 28 HR, 96 RBI

Will Mauer's power sustain in 2010?

Potential Backups: Jose Morales, Drew Butera, Wilson Ramos

Despite missing all of spring training and the entire month of April with a back injury, Joe Mauer managed to surpass 600 plate appearances last season while obliterating his previous career highs in just about every statistical category. The amazing efforts helped lift the Twins to a postseason berth and earned Mauer a batting title, a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger and an MVP award while heavily increasing his celebrity on the national scene.

Imagine what he can do now that he's entering the 2010 season healthy.

It's March 9, and Mauer is still without a contract extension as he enters the final season of the four-year deal he signed with the Twins back in 2007. That uncertainty surrounding his contract will surely be the center of much discussion here as we approach the start of the regular season, but his focal role in a lineup that figures to surround him with more talent than ever before will be the spotlight of today's article.

Last year, Mauer managed to drive in 96 runs despite generally hitting directly behind terrible hitters, as the No. 2 spot in the Twins lineup put forth a .232 average and .272 on-base percentage when Mauer was not inhabiting it. This year, the Twins will fill that void with a legitimate veteran hitter in Orlando Hudson, who along with leadoff man Denard Span figures to provide plenty of opportunities for Mauer to inflict damage. And given that Mauer has historically been a tremendous hitter with runners in scoring position, with a .347 career average in such situations, it's a good bet that he'll take advantage.

Adding to the headaches for opposing pitchers are the batters following Mauer in the lineup. Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel each hit at least 28 bombs while driving in at least 92 runs last season, so if those three can remain imposing power threats (with new additions Jim Thome and J.J. Hardy possibly joining the pack), there will be no pitching around Mauer. The Twins' lineup is starting to look like a "pick your poison" conundrum for opposing managers, and as the best hitter of the bunch, Mauer is the guy who makes all the gears turn.

Mauer has always been an excellent contact hitter with one of the league's most discerning eyes, but what transformed him into an MVP last year was the emergence of legitimate power in his game. The big question as we go forward is whether that power is going to stick. He hit a huge percentage of his long balls during that insane month of May when he first joined the club, going deep 11 times in 122 plate appearances. The rest of the way, Mauer homered 17 times in 484 plate appearances -- a rate of one home run per 28.5 PAs which would translate to about 21 bombs in 600 plate appearances. As pitchers continue to adjust to Mauer, who hit nearly all his home runs to the opposite field last year, I suspect we'll see some reduction in the home run proclivity, particularly considering that many of his round-trippers barely cleared the wall last season. One might argue that a drop-off in homer frequency might be offset by not missing a month of the season, but it probably isn't realistic to expect a whole lot more than 600 plate appearances from Mauer this year given that his previous career high in that category was 633 (again, this only helps reinforce how amazingly durable Mauer was after coming off the disabled list last year). I'd guess that Mauer's home run total this year will drop closer to 20 while his doubles total moves closer to 40.

Of course, those figures are nothing to scoff at and if Mauer can stay among the league leaders in batting average and on-base percentage, which almost seem like givens at this point, he'll remain one of the two or three most valuable players in all of baseball. That is, in large part, because of the fact that he plays catcher and plays it well. His Gold Glove nod last year may not have been entirely deserved, but there's no doubt that Mauer is a very solid backstop, with quick reactions to smother balls in the dirt and a cannon arm that limits what opposing clubs can do on the base paths.

Should Mauer experience any health problems this year, the Twins will be without the player who has backed him up for nearly his entire career. Mike Redmond ended a five-year run with the club by signing with the Indians this offseason, which may have been for the best given that his skills have declined dramatically across the board in recent years. This season, the Twins will likely trot out Drew Butera as Mauer's caddy to start the year, with Jose Morales likely to take over that role once his wrist is fully healthy. Butera seems a capable defensive fill-in but he'll provide almost nothing with the bat, which would become a burden if Mauer went down. Morales has posted a .328 batting average in 137 major-league plate appearances, and while that figure is unsustainably buoyed by a .396 average on balls in play, his .319 average at Triple-A over the past three seasons suggests that he'll at least be a competent big-league hitter, albeit without much power or patience.

Wilson Ramos, who I recently ranked as the organization's second-best prospect, could also see playing time with the Twins this year in the event that Mauer should go down for an extended period of time.

As has been the case for the past several seasons, catcher enters the season as the team's strongest position. I'm hopeful that Mauer's contract situation can get worked out soon so people can stop worrying about his long-term future with the club and start beaming about what he's likely to provide from the No. 3 spot in a potentially dominant lineup this year.

Predicted 2010 Hitting Line for Mauer: .330/.425/.550, 20 HR, 110 RBI