He will soon be in the Twins Hall of Fame. Perhaps, in a few years, he will be in baseball’s.
He is one of the greatest athletes in Minnesota history, and only injuries kept him from becoming one of the best-hitting catchers in baseball history.
He is the embodiment of the supposed Minnesota sporting ethic: diligent, humble and team-oriented. When he donned his gear one last time, he provided the emotional highlight of the 2018 season.
In a few weeks, the Twins will retire Joe Mauer’s number. If such ceremonies allowed for bluntness, the team would on the same day hang a banner reading “$184 million.” Retiring Mauer’s contract helped the Twins become a first-place team.
Mauer is the Twins’ 2019 MVP — their most valuable pensioner. His retirement is not the only key development in the Twins’ emergence as one of baseball’s best teams, but it might be the most important.
The Twins somehow overcame the hurricane-like weather in Southern California to beat the Los Angeles Angels 16-7 Thursday, giving them a series sweep. They own baseball’s best record, and that would not have been possible had Mauer signed for nine years instead of eight.
The strength of the Twins this season is their lineup depth. They have produced 98 home runs in 49 games. They are on pace to hit 324 this season. The record is 267.
In 1982, the Milwaukee Brewers were so powerful they earned a nickname that incorporated the name of their manager, Harvey Kuenn. They became “Harvey’s Wallbangers.”
That team hit 216 home runs. The 2019 Twins might reach that total before August. They are Baldelli’s Bleacher Reachers.
You could have made the case last fall that Miguel Sano would be the key to the 2019 season. He has spent most of this season on the injured list. You could have made the case this spring that Nelson Cruz would be the Twins’ key hitter. Because of interleague play and injuries, Cruz has fewer at-bats than seven teammates.
No matter. The Twins’ ability to take Mauer’s $23 million a year, add a few bucks, and sign Cruz, Jonathan Schoop and C.J. Cron has turned a young, unpredictable lineup into a home-run machine.
In 2018, Mauer had 486 at-bats. He produced six home runs and 48 RBI.
In 2019, Cruz, Cron and Schoop have had 451 at-bats. They have produced 30 home runs and 81 RBI.
With Mauer’s salary, the Twins acquired a third of their lineup. They also added key personalities.
Cruz now occupies Mauer’s corner locker in the Twins clubhouse at Target Field. Mauer was a calm, professional presence, but he was not as valuable in that room as Cruz, who has been a driving force on winning teams and connects with younger teammates, especially those who speak Spanish.
The Twins’ key Latin-American players include Cruz, Sano, Schoop, Martin Perez, Eddie Rosario, Jorge Polanco and Jose Berrios. Having a bilingual leader in this room matters.
If the Twins’ money-minded fan base is to perceive a negative from these developments, it is this: The past two times I spoke at length with Twins Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey, he noted that teams that pay a large percentage of their payrolls to one player rarely win.
In other words, don’t expect him to spend $20 million on a free-agent pitcher, or ever to pursue the likes of Bryce Harper or Manny Machado. Falvey is proving that you can play both moon-ball and money-ball.
What’s most encouraging about the Twins is that they are dominating as a team without relying on unsustainable performances.
Cruz, Sano and Mitch Garver have been injured. Byron Buxton only recently began driving the ball. Rosario is emerging from a long slump. And the Twins have insisted on regularly resting their regulars, winning with an assortment of odd lineups.
By the end of their afternoon game in Anaheim on Thursday, the Twins led the majors in runs and homers. What happens if Sano produces at an All-Star level again, and some of his teammates get hot?