Mauer playing first -- no catch

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The hard part came when Joe Mauer recognized that he “just couldn’t do it” anymore.

Couldn't do what he’s been doing nonstop since he was 14 years old.

Couldn't do that special thing that's defined him as a baseball player for the last decade and a half.

Couldn't strap on that chest protector, wriggle into his mask, ease into his crouch for the 38 millionth time.

Just couldn't do it, at 30 years old. Couldn't catch anymore. Couldn't.

“When it finally hit me in the offseason, when I realized I just couldn't do it, it was pretty emotional,” he says, nearly halfway through his strangest spring training. “I've put in a lot of work to become the catcher that I was. So it’s definitely disappointing, just how it all unfolded.

“I mean, we wouldn't be having this conversation,” he says, finally, “if I didn't have that concussion last year.”

That concussion. It looked so innocent at the time. Mauer had taken an Ike Davis foul tip off the mask in August. He assured the world he’d be fine. He was placed on the seven-day concussion disabled list.

And he would never catch again. Never. Couldn't.

So now here he is, a little more than six months later, with no catcher’s mitt in his locker, no catcher’s gear in his clubhouse, no catchers’ meetings to attend or bullpens to catch.

Now here he is, trying to do something almost no one has ever done after catching for as long as he has caught. He is trying to become a first baseman -- not just for a day here and there, but for the long haul.

It’s strange. Even for him. Maybe especially for him.

“It’s still early in the spring,” the face of the Twins’ franchise says. “But it’s definitely been a weird couple of weeks.”

Well, it’s about to get weirder, because Joe Mauer has a lot to learn. Even after starting 54 games at first over the last three seasons.

“You know, the last few seasons, when I’d get out there, it was kind of a day off from catching, and it was kind of like, go out there and do your best. But now,” he says, “it’s your job. So you’d better do it right.”

And when we hear those words come out of his mouth, it tells us a lot about him. Don’t you think?

He may be soft-spoken and even-keel. Don’t be fooled. He’ll never be Dustin Pedroia, setting out each day to get all dirt-covered and high-voltage on you. But that doesn't mean Joe Mauer isn't reaching for the stars, every day, every year.

So if this is now his job, it’s no hobby anymore. He’d better do it right. He is going to do it right.

Even as he jokes about how his knees don’t miss catching, and he hasn't been real nostalgic for those ricochets off the cage in live batting practice, Joe Mauer has been busy setting a personal record this spring -- for most brains picked.

You name the Twins coach/instructor/legend with first-base expertise. This man has worked with him: Tom Kelly ... Paul Molitor ... Rod Carew ... Kent Hrbek ... Ron Gardenhire ... Joe Vavra.

“I talked to him today about a first-and-third, one-out situation,” says Molitor, who played nearly 200 games at first on his tour around the diamond, on his way to the Hall of Fame. “It’s a play that requires forethought. ... Just trying to get him to start having a little bit of comprehension of all the different things that can [happen] in different situations. Physically, I’m not worried about him catching the ball. It’s just those little things, where only experience is going to help him out.”

The people who run the Twins are certain he has the hands, the smarts and the footwork to be really good at this. And as their GM, Terry Ryan, said in November, on the day the Twins announced his move, they are confident that Joe Mauer will still be “one of the best players in the game, even if he’s at first base.”

But that’s actually where this debate gets fascinating. As a catcher, this is a player who has made an impact that can be safely described as historic. After all ...

How many other catchers in history have won three batting titles? That would be none. How many other catchers in history can match or beat his .405 career on-base percentage (with at least 5,000 plate appearances)? Just one (Mickey Cochrane). How many other catchers can match or beat his .873 OPS? Only two (Cochrane and Mike Piazza). So as a catcher, Joe Mauer is one of the most productive who ever lived.

But now, as a first baseman, he is going to have to register a different kind of impact -- because he is attempting to make a transition that almost no one in history has ever made. Seriously:

• According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only two players -- two -- have ever played at least 500 career games as both a catcher and a first baseman. That would be Joe Torre and Gene Tenace.

• Or, if we look at this another way, Elias tells us that just three players -- three -- have ever caught 500 games in their careers and spent even two other seasons (or more) in which they played at least 100 games at first base. That would be Torre, Tenace and a 19th-century multi-position sensation known as “Honest Jack” Boyle.

But that’s it. So that means Mauer is trying to follow a template here that barely exists. We know that Torre won an MVP award in the first season after he stopped catching (1971). Other than that, however, there is very little data to help us project what effect these sorts of transitions have on the players who make them.

Hold on, though. There’s more. The Twins talk about how they hope this move will enable Mauer to be a productive hitter deeper into his career -- ideally, of course, for the five years he has left on his contract (at $23 million a year). It sounds logical. But again, there is almost no one like him in history to give us any way of knowing if they’re right. Take a look:

• How many players have ever played 300 games anywhere on the field, at any other positions, after catching their 900th game? Just one, according to Elias: Joe Torre.

• And even if we lower the bar by a couple of seasons, how many men besides Torre played 300 games at other positions after catching even their 700th game? Only one more, Elias says: B.J. Surhoff.

So if Joe Mauer goes on to play, say, 600 games at first over the next five years, he’ll be in a whole different realm of historic territory. Can the Twins really count on that? How do we have any way of knowing?

And then there’s maybe the most intriguing question of all: As a catcher, there was no doubt this man was a perennial All-Star and MVP candidate. But is he still all of those things as a first baseman?

“I was one of the guys who tried to get him to hang onto catching as long as he could,” Molitor says, “just because his unique gift set, as a guy who could win batting titles as a catcher and do things like that offensively, made him a little bit more unique. So as great as his offense can be, maybe we can see him go to another level.”

But to go to that next level, does he now have to (ahem) hit like a first baseman? Does he have to go back to being the 28-homer man he was in 2009, at the late, great Metrodome? Or is .323/.405/.468 (his career slash line) enough?

“Just another debate for you guys,” chuckles Twins bench coach Terry Steinbach. “What’s better -- a .340 hitter with maybe 10-15 home runs or a guy who’s hitting maybe .220 with 30 (homers)? I don’t know. We have bus rides where we argue about that. But you know what I think? Just let Joe be Joe.”

Well, if that’s all that’s going to be expected, hey, that works for Joe himself.

“I’m starting my 11th year in the big leagues,” Mauer says. “I think you know what type of a hitter I am. I’m not going to try to do anything or be anything that I’m not. ... If I hit a few more homers here and there, that would be great. But I’ll just keep having good at-bats and keep trying to produce runs for our team.”

So have we undervalued the way he does that? We just might have.

According to baseball-reference.com’s indispensible Play Index, Mauer's offensive contributions alone were worth 30.4 Wins Above Replacement from 2008-13. Just four other players beat that: Miguel Cabrera (40.4), Albert Pujols (31.6), Robinson Cano (31.5) and Joey Votto (30.9).

So we rest our case. While it’s natural to expect some regression in his 30s, if the Twins get five more years with even a semblance of Joe Being Joe, that’s going to work for them -- at any position.

And the truth is, it’s going to have to work. Because there’s no rethinking of this maneuver on anyone’s drawing board. No matter how much he or anyone else wish that were possible.

Asked what he would tell people out there who have one of those famous PS3 (“Well played, Mauer”) games that still have him catching for a living, Mauer laughs.

“I’d say, `Hold onto it,’” says Joe Mauer, with no hesitation whatever, “because I’m not going back there.”