March 24, 2009

Uh oh

Over the weekend, Twins catcher Joe Mauer indicated that he will likely miss Opening Day due to lingering back discomfort which has caused Mauer to miss all of Spring Training games up to this point. Mauer has been able to do pretty much everything but run, which at least in that sense is good that he's been able to at least swing a bat on a fairly regular basis.

The Twins don't have an idea of when Mauer will return, but they are hoping that he'll be back in Minnesota at some point in the month of April. Mauer's offense and defense are something that the Twins will miss, but they have a few capable backups that should be able to adequately fill the void that Mauer leaves, so long as it's not for an extended period of time.

Twins veteran Mike Redmond will likely handle the bulk of the starts while Mauer is out, but the soon-to-be 38-year-old does not have enough in his tank to handle everyday duties, so the Twins will have to pick amongst a few capable catchers to back him up.

In September 2007, the Twins called-up (then) 24-year-old catcher Jose Morales to fill in for both Mauer and Redmond who were banged up. Morales went 3-3 with a double in his only 3 Major League at-bats before leaving the game with a sprained ankle. That same ankle injury lingered into last season which cost Morales all but 54 games with the Rochester Red Wings.

Since reaching Triple-A, Morales has turned a corner and has provided the Twins with a reasonable option to fill in should Mauer or Morneau get hurt. Thankfully, the Twins haven't had to dip into the Triple-A level much in the last few seasons at catcher, despite Mauer's "injury prone" lable many have put on him throughout his career.

Another option the Twins are currently looking into is Drew Butera. Butera came to the Twins along with Dustin Martin in a trade with the New York Mets in 2007 in exchange for Luis Castillo. Martin headlined the deal for the Twins, while Butera looked to be a "throw-in" from the Mets standpoint.

Butera has become recognized as one of the best defensive catchers throughout all of the Minor Leagues. Not only do pitchers love having Butera call the games, but he also has a strong arm which allows the pitchers to become more comfortable knowing that Butera can be added insurance if a runner decides to swipe a base. Unfortunately, while his defense may be stellar, Butera's offense is sub-par, to say the least.

While Butera's defense would be much appreciated, I can't see the Twins warrant giving a roster spot to a .215/.302/.323 career hitter. Especially since Redmond's catching skills are also relished by Twins pitchers.

The Twins could very well decide to bring both North to Minnesota, but it doesn't make that much sense to me. Although having a strong defensive catcher is something most teams desire, the Twins can afford the defensive dropoff between Morales and Butera compared to the offensive dropoff. The Twins are locked-and-loaded to have a great potential lineup this season, but with Mauer out of the lineup the Twins have to bring in the best offensive guy they can.

Wilson Ramos is the best offensive catcher behind Mauer in the organization, he has already been cut from Major League camp and belongs in Double-A this season. So with regards to guys still in Big League camp, Morales is our best hitting catcher despite hitting a feeble .176/.188/.188 through 18 official Spring Training at-bats.

With Mauer out, the Twins not only lose their starting catcher, but also their 3rd hitter in the batting lineup. Lately, Jason Kubel has been getting a look in the 3-hole which probably makes the most sense out of anyone on our roster. Besides him, I could see someone make a case for Delmon Young who looks to have improved his swing, but I cannot fathom seeing Young swing at 40% of the balls thrown out of the strike zone (among other reasons) while hitting in the 3rd spot of the lineup.

Kubel had himself a great 2008 season and should only continue to build on his success at the plate from here on out. With that said, the Twins will likely be using this lineup come Opening Day:
  1. CF - Denard Span
  2. 2B - Alexi Casilla
  3. DH - Jason Kubel
  4. 1B - Justin Morneau
  5. RF - Michael Cuddyer
  6. LF - Delmon Young
  7. 3B - Brian Buscher
  8. C - Mike Redmond
  9. SS - Nick Punto
While some will probably question my reasonings, I actually believe that the loss of Mauer also could play an effect on Joe Crede being in the lineup. We all know how much manager Ron Gardenhire loves to have a good balance of right-handed hitters and left-handed hitters in his lineup, so if they have 3 left-handers in the first 4 spots in the order, that could force Gardenhire to go with Brian Buscher against a fair number of right-handed pitchers while Mauer is out.

It's entirely possible that the switch-hitting Morales gets the Opening Day start at catcher to help level the left-handed/right-handed batters in the lineup, but at this point, it's widely expected that Redmond will be behind the plate when the Twins face the Mariners on Opening Day.

It's not known whether or not Denard Span or even Michael Cuddyer will start on opening day, but if they do, I could see Buscher getting the nod over Crede as the Twins will likely be facing right-hander Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners on opening day.

If they face a left-handed pitcher such as Erik Bedard, this theory would obviously be moot as the Twins would try to load up on right-handed bats in the lineup anyway.