When Joe Mauer finally announced in the off-season that he would no longer be manning the plate for the Minnesota Twins, fans and pundits alike who had been clamoring for such a move felt a sense of vindication.
But then the next cleat dropped: Who the hell was going to catch? Mauer's natural athletic ability, general unflappability and knowledge of the game were all taken for granted behind the plate to the point that his effectiveness seemed almost invisible even close observers. Mauer was insistent for years that he only wanted to play catcher, and that has something to do with his quiet (many would say too quiet) leadership - the guy who was also one of the top quarterbacks in the country when he was in high school wants the ball in his hands.
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But suddenly there was really no one to put behind the plate. The Twins invested way too much time on Drew Butera as back-up in recent years, a guy who was notable as a good receiver behind the plate, but one who had no business being at the plate with a bat in his hands at the major-league level. They let one of their top prospects, Wilson Ramos, get stolen away to the Washington Nationals, where in 2011 he was considered the best rookie catcher in the game - though it should be said that Ramos has since spent more time in the training room nursing injuries than on the field for the Nats.
As last season dragged on, the Twins used Chris Herrmann and Josmil Pinto mostly to give Mauer breaks. Both showed some promise and some pop, but neither was a lock bet, even on the cheap, to replace Joe.
Then in December, the Twins signed longtime Oakland catcher Kurt Suzuki, who last season platooned with Ramos in Washington. The thought was Suzuki - solid, but hardly an All-Star - would be able to nurture Pinto. Mauer would still be around, just 90 feet down the line at first base, to offer guidance. Twins bench coach Terry Steinbach, a former all-star in the position, would also help bring Pinto along.
The results have been much better than expected, and platooning Suzuki and Pinto has turned out to be one of the reasons the Twins are hanging on to a .500 record at 9-9 as of this writing.
Suzuki has 15 hits in 15 games, and has a .393 on-base percentage. More importantly, his hits have come with runners in scoring position - a major weakness on last year's Twins squad - giving him 14 RBI for the young season.
Pinto showed power last year, hitting .342 with four homers in just 21 games with the ball club, his first games in the majors. This April, he's hitting on .233, but he has four dingers in 14 games, and possesses the kind of biceps and compact, powerful swing that make 25 home runs this season a reasonable expectation.
With injuries to Josh Willingham and Oswaldo Arcia, corner outfielders who would also be in the mix for designated hitter on any given game day, the Twins have been alternated between Suzuki and Pinto at DH while the other catches. The move smacks of desperation - what team puts essentially two catchers on any line-up card? - but it has paid dividends.
Sunday's game in Kansas City, an 8-3 win for Minnesota, was the perfect example. Suzuki went 2-for-4 with two RBI while catching, and Pinto went 1-for-3 with a walk and two strikeouts, and a serious home run jack that was measured at 408 feet, but might still be going had it not smacked into a sign in the left field stands.
Another note about the two: Sunday was the first win for Phil Hughes as a Twin, and his first in 16 starts going back to last season as a Yankee, a desperately needed quality start for. Suzuki caught him nearly perfectly. The Twins have been getting far more good innings out of their starting pitchers, a fact that should quell any worries about whether Suzuki or Pinto can call a game.