Everyone loves Joe Mauer, don't they? But business is business, and the hometown icon has become a dark cloud that threatens to hang over the idyllic Target Field for another seven years.
That's the length of time remaining on the contract Mauer was given in March 2010, keeping him off the free-agent market at the end of the season. He had been the American League MVP the year before, getting 27 of 28 first-place votes after helping close the Metrodome with a Central title.
He had done this despite missing almost all of spring training with a mysterious injury, one that was traced to the sacroiliac joint in his hip. A natural athlete and one of the best pure hitters around, Mauer seemed headed to a Hall of Fame career, but a series of problems from the waist down raised questions about his ability to stay on the field, especially as a catcher.
No one knew this better than the Twins, yet fear of losing Mauer to the Yankees or Red Sox as a free agent put a normally ultraconservative, ubersmart franchise into a state of denial. And when Mauer caught his first game at Target Field, he was the owner of an eight-year, $184 million contract.
The $23-million-a-year commitment to Mauer has already become too heavy for the Twins to carry, even with the increase in revenues that followed a move from their quirky chamber of indoor victories to a civic treasure that threatens to become an outdoor burial ground.
The absence and ineffectiveness of Mauer and first baseman Justin Morneau, who played only 69 sub-standard games last season because of an ongoing battle with concussion syndrome, was the overriding storyline in a shocking fall from 94 wins in 2010 to 99 losses in 2011. A miracle cure seems unlikely.
The combined $37 million due Mauer and Morneau contributed heavily in Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel and Joe Nathan departing as free agents, and the pitching staff was patched with low-level signings (Jason Marquis and Joel Zumaya) and a Rule 5 gamble on Terry Doyle, an underappreciated winner in the White Sox system. It's tough building a 25-man roster with two players getting 35 percent of the payroll.
Minnesota's biggest move of the offseason was an unlikely one for baseball's most stable franchise. Bill Smith was sacked after four years as general manager, opening the way for Terry Ryan to return.
Ryan, a burnout case when he stepped aside at the end of 2007, is a builder who was surprisingly shrewd in making deals. He got large returns when commitment time rolled around for veterans like Chuck Knoblauch, Eric Milton and A.J. Pierzynski.
Smith had been the anti-Ryan, trading Johan Santana, Matt Garza, J.J. Hardy and Delmon Young without much return. The most costly mistake he made might have been with the one player he was afraid to lose.
Mauer, with his damaged knees supposedly strong enough, will do everything he can to earn his money. But Ryan invested in free-agent catcher Ryan Doumit, and plans to catch him. It's uncertain how much Mauer will be able to catch, and he has generated most of his value (average WAR of 6.7 in 2006-10) with the gap between his hitting and that of mortals like Doumit. It's a nasty situation, however you look at it.
-- The classic Ryan move would have been to deal Mauer and make Wilson Ramos his catcher. Instead Smith sent Ramos to the Nationals for low-impact closer Matt Capps.
-- Mauer wouldn't have signed had Target Field not been built.
-- Bill James projects only a combined 23 home runs from Mauer and Morneau this season, with Mauer playing 124 games and Morneau 87. Both will have improved massively if they match the OPS that James projects — .878 for Mauer, .864 for Morneau.
-- The pitcher-friendly nature of Target Field makes middle-infield defense more important than ever. That's why Ryan signed Jamey Carroll to a two-year deal to play shortstop, leaving Tsuyoshi Nishioka and Alexi Casilla competing for the second-base job.
-- The Twins have had only four GMs (Calvin Griffith, Andy MacPhail, Ryan and Smith) since 1961, when the Washington Senators moved there.