FORT MYERS, Fla. -- He is this spring's man to see. Or in this case since Joe Mauer doesn't turn 21 until April 18, the phenom. There are other rookies around Florida who have already opened eyes -- Indians outfielder Grady Sizemore, Dodger masher James Loney, Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels -- but none of them have stirred the spring conversation as much as the Twins catcher.
Joe Mauer played in only 35 games last year due to an injury to his left knee.
One assistant general manager smiled and said, "Mauer goes way beyond 'very impressive.' He's a star in the making." Two days later, another club's executive said, "it's hard to believe that we have two potential Hall of Famers in Mauer and Miguel Cabrera and they aren't old enough to buy beer." Actually, Cabrera will turn 21 one day before Mauer.
This is, of course, what general manager Terry Ryan promised when he drafted Mauer as a high school catcher one spot ahead of Mark Prior and gave Mauer more than $5 million to keep him from playing quarterback at Florida State. "Prior is a special talent," said Ryan when Prior bolted into the majors. "But you'll see. So is Mauer." And because of Ryan's honesty and judgement, we waited a year.
Then this past winter, Mauer came in from working out here in Fort Myers. Roommate Jesse Crain told him A.J. Pierzynski had been traded to the Giants. "At first," says Mauer, "I thought he was kidding. Then the phones started ringing." Mauer then knew he was being asked to go from the Florida State League to the majors in one year."
Ryan wasn't taking some wild chance, or using the PR of the Saint Paul kid. Last spring, two different veteran pitchers each told a reporter, "this kid is the best receiver I've ever thrown to." When Ron Gardenhire went to console Mauer, then only 19, after striking out on a bad called third strike, he told his manager, "I had two pitches to hit and didn't hit them." They knew. His minor league teammates knew.
Joe Mauer is, indeed, special. He receives the ball like a Bob Boone, with great presentation and hands so soft he looks as if he could catch an egg thrown 90 miles an hour. He has a rocket arm (throwing out more than 50 percent of runners in the minors), but more important, for a 6-foot-4, 225-pound man, he has exceptionally quick feet, especially getting himself into position to throw. "I don't think there's any question that my football experience helps me back there," says Mauer. "I spent a lot of years working on the drop back, the footwork and getting rid of the ball properly. I don't think there's any question that the footwork for throwing as a quarterback and as a catcher are similar."
Then there's his makeup. "The pitchers love him because he works with and for them," says Twins coach and former major league catcher Rick Stelmaszek. Asked if he is aware of the adage that one of the most important personality traits for a catcher is selflessness, Mauer replied, "Yes. My job is to work for and with the pitcher. It's his game."
Mauer batted .339 with 85 RBI between Class A Fort Myers and Double-A New Britain last season. Scouts who have watched him think he will immediately hit with his gap power. "It's amazing that someone that big could be so short to the ball," says one scout. "And he has the approach of a 30-year-old." Perhaps the most impressive statistic last season wasn't his batting average, but that at Fort Myers his walk/strikeout ratio was 24/24, at New Britain 25/25.
I don't think I've ever seen a young hitter recognize pitches the way he does. ”
— Twins hitting coach Scott Ullger on Joe Mauer
"I don't think I've ever seen a young hitter recognize pitches the way he does," says Minnesota hitting coach Scott Ullger. "He can know what the pitch is as soon as it comes out of (the pitcher's) hand. He isn't worried about mechanics, he concentrates on seeing the pitch and the rotation out of the pitcher's hand."
"I normally don't think a lot about mechanics," says Mauer. "When I get messed up, my swing's a little off, I think about it and I don't pick up the ball as well. This spring, I've experienced that some. I'm still having trouble identifying the changeup, but I hope it's because it's early and I'm still feeling for my real swing."
Pitch recognition is why Drew Henson is switching to the NFL, and all the overcoaching he experienced may have led to his concentration on his hands and stride, etc. rather than what pitchers were throwing. "A lot of young hitters do think too much about the mechanics," says Red Sox executive Bill Lajoie. "They look at the pitcher, not at where he releases the ball, so they end up not really seeing the ball."
"Mauer seems to see every pitch," says Ullger. "It's uncanny."
Having lost Eddie Guardado and LaTroy Hawkins and traded Pierzynski and Eric Milton, the Twins are in a transition using their very deep farm system. They have lost some talent, and with their revenues will lose more, but one thing is clear: for the next six to 10 years, they have a foundation, and that foundation is named Joe Mauer.