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Maybe It Is Time to Panic in Minnesota

Last week, we asked whether the Red Sox slow start was cause for concern, and concluded that while their struggles had taken away a presumed talent advantage in the race for the AL East, they were still likely a playoff team and could stay the course until the ship righted itself. But I’m not sure things are so rosy in Minnesota, where it might be time to sound the alarm.

It’s not just the Twins 4-8 start and early three game deficit to the White Sox that’s the problem – it’s all the issues associated with their roster that have arisen since opening day. As Joe wrote yesterday, Francisco Liriano’s struggles are a legitimate concern, as his velocity is down and he’s looked nothing like the pitcher who led the American League in xFIP a year ago. Tsuyoshi Nishioka is on the DL with a broken fibula, and the Twins weren’t exactly deep up the middle to begin with. And now news comes that Joe Mauer is going on the disabled list with “bilateral leg weakness”, an unusual diagnosis and one that leaves an open-ended time frame for his return.

The Twins already looked to have some flaws heading into the season; the lineup was still too left-handed, nearly the entire infield offered uncertain productivity, and they were essentially trying to replace the entirety of their bullpen from last year. The Twins didn’t enter the season with much of a margin for error, but a disastrous first two weeks of the season have left them with a hole to climb out of and a smaller shovel than they expected. Mauer is the guy who makes this whole thing work, and if he’s going to be sidelined for more than a couple of weeks, the Twins are legitimately in trouble. Minnesota’s 2011 season could be slipping away before it ever really gets started, and unfortunately, that might be the least of their worries right now.

The long term viability of Mauer as a catcher has been a frequent topic of discussion, mainly due to his size. As has been noted many times, you just don’t see many 6’4 catchers who have long careers behind the dish, and Mauer has already had a pair of knee surgeries, as well as missing the start of the 2009 season with a somewhat mysterious back injury. Put simply, Mauer’s body doesn’t seem to be holding up all that well under the rigors of catching, and Ron Gardenhire’s comment that “his legs just aren’t strong enough underneath him” doesn’t offer reasons for optimism.

The timing couldn’t be worse for the Twins, considering Mauer is in the first season of the 8 year, $184 million extension he signed to stay in Minnesota, and now his long term viability as a catcher is once again going to have to be honestly assessed. The Twins need Mauer’s bat in the lineup, and if he’s not physically able to hold up as a catcher, the only option will be a shift to another position. Third base would seem to make the most sense, given that Justin Morneau is under contract to play first base through 2013, but learning a new position doesn’t happen overnight, and if Mauer’s body needs a break, perhaps just making him their DH for the rest of the year would make the most sense.

Yes, that would push Jim Thome out of the starting lineup, but if this is the bridge the Twins have to cross, their odds of making the playoffs in 2011 will be dramatically reduced anyway, and shipping Thome to a contender in need of a DH would become a viable option. Twelve games into the season seems awfully premature to be discussing the dumping of veterans, but the Twins situation is not your normal slow start; their best players are battling legitimate physical problems that bring into question just how much production can realistically be expected over the rest of the season.

Panic is never the best course of action, but the Twins are going to have some tough choices ahead of them, and whether they view themselves as legitimate contenders or not will affect what course of action they take in regards to Mauer. Hopefully, for his sake and the rest of baseball’s, this ends up being a minor issue and Mauer returns with a vengeance like he did in 2009. At this point, though, that seems like more of a wish than a realistic expectation, and reality is threatening to punch the Twins in the face early in the 2011 season.