Twins' top catcher under microscope

Updated: February 22, 2005, 2:47 AM ET
Associated Press

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.

Joe Mauer
Catcher
Minnesota Twins
Profile
2004 SEASON STATISTICS
GM HR RBI R SB AVG
35 6 17 18 1 .308

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."


Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press