For some, 2016 Spring Training marks the start of a brand new Major League Baseball season. For others, this time of year marks the height of the presidential primary elections. While many pontificate over who is best suited to lead the country, The Sports Fan Journal fam decided to take a look at which player, manager, or front office member is the best candidate to lead their team to the top of the baseball mountain.
Joe Mauer battles a rare affliction: He is undone by something that once made him great.
For Mauer possesses a near-perfect baseball swing; a mechanical, yet artful motion in a game of failure. It is the same swing that convinced Mauer to choose the diamond over the gridiron in 2001. The same swing that caused scouts to salivate and reassure any doubters that “the power will come.” The same swing that won Mauer three American League batting titles, a feat no other AL catcher has accomplished even once. The same swing that in 2009 put Mauer, then 26, in the discussion of greatest hitters since Barry Bonds. His argument came in the form of a .365 average and 28 home runs in only 523 at-bats.
That swing made 0-2 counts irrelevant, turned outside pitches into meatballs and, most importantly, pulled the Minnesota Twins out of the wasteland of mediocrity and firmly into contention.
Now, things have changed for the mighty Mauer. Seven years past his MVP peak and that swing has turned against him. Last season, he struck out a career-high 112 times, nearly twice as often as his magical '09 campaign. He also grounded into 22 double plays thanks to stiff legs and a propensity to hit the ball up the middle. His batting average dropped to .265, nearly 50 points below his career mark.
But boy did Mauer look good doing it, like if Sam Snead developed a slice.
It all made 2015 surreal. Twins fans grew fed up with their infallible hometown hero. He had a mammoth contract—8 years, $184 million signed following the 2010 season—without the production to support it. Meanwhile, Minnesota faded down the stretch as the biggest star limped to the finish line. Mauer's position switch to first base was supposed to save him from the dog days. Now, it seems, the change came too late. Injuries—from legs to the back to his concussed head—have hampered the once statuesque athlete.
And the timing couldn't have been worse.
For the first time since the early days of Mauer, Justin Morneau, Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano, the Twins carry a young, talented core. Infielders Brian Dozier and Trevor Plouffe combined for 50 home runs a season ago. Left fielder Eddie Rosario, 23, legged out 15 triples, smacked 13 homers and slugged .459 in 453 at-bats.
But the real prizes are two phenoms that debuted with even more promise than Mauer. Miguel Sano is a 6-4, 260-pound specimen who crushed American League pitching in his abbreviated rookie campaign. Teammate Byron Buxton flashed the sort of speed he displayed as a teenager in high A ball, where he hit 18 triples in 2013. Still just 22, Buxton will make the expansive outfield at Target Field his own with his legs as a defender, with his bat as a hitter.
And while all of this occurs, the club's statesman, Mauer, will stand witness. He is no longer the savior of a franchise that hasn't won a postseason series since 2002. In fact, he's something of an albatross, a remarkable fall from the near-royalty status he held in his home state.
If there's one thing Minnesotans love more than anything else it's Minnesota. That's what made Mauer so special. A St. Paul native, he picked Minnesota not once, but twice when more glamorous places came calling. Bobby Bowden famously wanted Mauer’s services for Florida State during the Seminoles’ heyday. But when the Twins selected the hometown kid with the number one overall pick in 2001, Mauer elected to stay put. You know what else happened that year? Contraction talks.
It'd be a stretch to say Mauer saved the Twins—Torii Hunter, Jacques Jones, Lew Ford, Corey Koskie, "Every Day" Eddie Guardado and Brad Radke played their part—but his arrival helped rejuvenate the club and fan base. The Twins became a perennial playoff contender, Morneau and Mauer won MVP's and soon the Metrodome got the wrecking ball as sparkling Target Field went up a few blocks away. It was The House that Joe Built and Welcomed all his closest Friends inside, all of whom proudly wore his jersey.
The stadium will be the biggest testament to Mauer's career alongside the batting titles and his MVP nod. His legacy is that of one of the game's best pure hitters, assuming we dismiss the last season and a half.
While his once surefire Hall of Fame credentials are eroding, the Twins need to be able to turn to their venerable cornerstone for another magical summer, as they emerge from a season where they finished as a surprise second-place finisher in the AL Central, and now hope to overtake the World Champions at the top of their division.
We can cheer for it, but we can't expect it. If time is undefeated in all things, it largely built that record against catchers on the wrong side of 30. Then again, Mauer's swing is timeless.
Philadelphia born. Raised in God's country aka Duluth, Minnesota. Give me a frozen pond and an open pitch and I'll be happy. Follow me on twitter @noclassfriday