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Updated: June 10th, 2014 3:29pm
Zulgad: Time to replace anger toward Mauer with legitimate concern?

Zulgad: Time to replace anger toward Mauer with legitimate concern?

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

The easy thing would be to bash Joe Mauer, attempt a few pithy jokes at the expense of the Twins' $23 million man and be done with it.

Here's the problem with that.

There's nothing funny about this situation. It might be time to replace anger that has built toward Mauer with legitimate concern.

One of baseball's best hitters since coming to the big leagues 11 years ago, will enter Tuesday's game in Toronto hitting .259 with a .336 on-base percentage and a .330 slugging percentage. He has two home runs and 15 runs batted in. He has struck out 48 times in 253 plate appearances, putting him on pace for more than 100 strikeouts. Mauer has never struck out more than 89 times in a season.

His average with runners in scoring position is an anemic .143 (7-for-49).

Just to give those statistics a bit of context, Mauer is a career .320/.402/.462 hitter with a .326 average with runners in scoring position. And all of those numbers include his ineptitude at the plate this season.

Mauer bashing became an art form long ago.

His eight-year, $184 million in 2010 opened the door for fans to point out he didn't generate sufficient power for the salary he was making. The floodgates were opened a year later when Mauer missed time with the mysterious bilateral leg weakness. The milktoast personality Mauer presents to the public didn't and doesn't help matters.

But until this season the Mauer bashers had one thing going against them. He remained an elite baseball player. Mauer was a three-time gold glove winner at catcher, one of the game's most difficult positions, and had won three batting titles (2006, 2008 and 2009) and an MVP (2009).

Mauer's move to first base on a full-time basis this offseason was necessitated by a concussion he suffered last August when he took a foul tip off his mask. The injury cost him the final 40 games.

The immediate reaction to the move from many was this: How on earth is Mauer worth $23 million as a first baseman who doesn't hit for power? The counter: Mauer isn't worth anything if he's not in the lineup on a daily basis and there have been some very good first baseman who have hit for average, with plenty of doubles, but haven't driven the ball out of the yard.

I was in that second group when the season began. But at this point there is no defending what's going on. And how long can you say, "Well, it's Joe, he'll come around"? This isn't a three-week or even a month-long struggle. This is a two-plus month disappearance.

So what's happened?

There are plenty of theories being thrown around.

Among them: The bad back that caused Mauer to miss a few days earlier this season continues to bother him. Mauer's years of working behind the plate are catching up with the 31-year-old. The concussion symptoms that ended Mauer's 2013 season are still affecting him. No longer being used as a catcher means Mauer isn't as sharp at the plate because part of the reason for his great eye was working behind the plate and handling a pitching staff. Mauer's transition to first base hasn't been as easy as expected.

When asked most recently about whether his back was impacting him, Mauer said no. But privately the Twins have to be hoping, or have to know, that something is physically wrong with him.

The flip side, if nothing is wrong, is that Mauer has gone into a freefall with four-plus years left on his huge contract.

The Twins were in New York on June 1 when manager Ron Gardenhire asked Mauer if he wanted a day off. Mauer, possibly knowing the reaction to sitting out, said he wanted to play. He went 1-for-4 in that game.

Last Sunday, in the Twins' 14-5 loss to Houston at Target Field, Mauer did sit. The decision got little attention because the Twins announced the surprise signing of veteran switch-hitter Kendrys Morales on the same day, but overlooking the fact that Gardenhire decided not to play Mauer would be a mistake.

It wasn't that Mauer can't be given a day off. It's that he was given the day off at Target Field for a day game after a day game. Gardenhire could have elected to wait until the Twins started a nine-game road trip to have Mauer on the bench but he didn't do that. And he didn't use Mauer as his designated hitter.

Twins general manager Terry Ryan, who is back on the job after undergoing cancer treatment the past five months, expressed little concern about Mauer when asked about him before Sunday's game.

"His track record is too good, his health is good," Ryan said. "There's no reason he can't string together about four or five games here quickly. It'll return."

Ryan, like others, mentioned that he thinks Mauer has had some bad luck at the plate and that the shifts being put on him by opposing defenses are making it tougher for him to get hits. That might be part of it, but it fails to explain the drastic drop in his stats. It also doesn't explain his high strikeout rate.

The next thing the Twins are going to have to ask themselves is what they can do to help get Mauer on track? Mauer has been such a good hitter his entire life that odds are everyone who has ever coached him has just waited for him to break out of a slump.

The clock has to be ticking on using that philosophy.

There have been suggestions that Mauer is going to have to make some adjustments in his stance, or approach, to counter the shifts he is facing. Gardenhire also could drop Mauer in the lineup or even move him up to leadoff for a few games if he thinks that will spark him.

These suggestions might not be popular with Mauer, but we're 62 games into the season and nothing he has done has worked.

That is cause for great concern.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
In this story: Ron Gardenhire, Joe Mauer
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