<
>

Twins' top catcher under microscope

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Besieged by questions about Joe Mauer's
readiness for the majors last spring, the Minnesota Twins and their
young catcher are enduring another round of queries a year later.

So how IS the knee, Joe?
"It was pretty good," Mauer said in his usual understated way.
"Good first day."
Yes, Monday came and went without a hitch. On the first
sanctioned workout for Twins pitchers and catchers, Mauer did every
drill under no restrictions. He hit, threw, ran and -- most
importantly -- crouched on his left knee without any problems.
"We're just keeping a little eye on it here in spring," Mauer
said. "but I'm just like any other catcher here."
Except he's not.
None of the other catchers were chosen with the first pick in
the draft, had their arms described by manager Ron Gardenhire as a
"cannon" or were batting third in the big leagues just months
after their 21st birthday.
Handed the starting job last April, Mauer tore medial meniscus
cartilage in his left knee in the second game of the season and
missed seven weeks.
He returned and was batting .308 with six homers and 17 RBIs in
just 107 at-bats before soreness and swelling in the knee sent him
back to the disabled list right after the All-Star break and kept
him out for the remainder of the season.
Watching Mauer in the batting cage won't give any clues about
his condition, however.
"It's just as good a swing as ever, and the ball was jumping
off his bat," Gardenhire said. "I don't think you're going to
miss too much. He's a natural. He's got what it takes. We just hope
he's healthy."
By all accounts, he is.
"I didn't even think about it at all today, until you guys
asked me," Gardenhire told reporters gathered in his office after
practice. "Unless he tells me something's bothering him, I'm not
going out there worrying about it."
The coaching staff has devised a plan to slightly limit Mauer's
repetitions during drills, but that's about the only caution being
exercised. The soft-spoken, smiling kid from St. Paul must play
several more weeks before he'll actually know the knee is ready for
the rigors of the 162-game season.
Though this injury might necessitate a switch to another
position much later in his career, there's no indication he can't
catch for the Twins for several years to come.
There's also no worry that his development was stunted by all
that time spent in rehabilitation when he could've been behind -- or
at -- the plate.
"He studies the game, and he's into it, and you don't have to
worry about him too much," Gardenhire said. "He's got all those
good instincts. Our pitchers love throwing to him. He's an easy guy
to throw to. Umpires like it when he's behind the plate. Fans love
him, in the stands. The popcorn guys love him. The guy selling
Coca-Colas loves him. His family loves him -- a thousand of 'em.
Florida State hates him."
That last part was a joking reference to Mauer's spurning of a
football scholarship -- he was a quarterback for Cretin-Derham Hall
High School -- from Florida State to enter the baseball draft in
2001.
Despite the rookie-season setback, Mauer seems to have made the
right decision.
"I've been looking ahead ever since I've been hurt," he said.
"I've just been trying to get back on the field. Working hard
every day, trying to get back on."