When healthy, Joe Mauer is one of baseballís elite players, and a fitting centerpiece for a championship-caliber team. The Twins are aware of this, which is why they locked him up with a $184 million contract back in 2010.
When they committed to paying the hometown star $23 million annually for eight years Ė until heís 35 Ė the Twins knew that the best value in the deal was likely to come at the front end. Thatís just a natural facet of baseball and pro sports in general; players are at their best around their late 20s and tend to decline as they age into their 30s as athleticism, quickness and durability gradually erode. Thatís especially true for a career catcher with a history of leg injuries.
None of that means Mauer is bound to turn into a pumpkin any time soon, but as you watch him right now Ė 30 years old, fully healthy for the first time in years Ė youíre looking at one of the gameís premier players. We canít take for granted that he will continue to play at this level forever, especially while remaining at catcher. His unparalleled approach at the plate means heíll probably be a good hitter until the day he retires, but Mauer simply wonít be able to affect games in the same way if heís a plodding designated hitter or first baseman. Like it or not, thatís in his future at some point down the line.
Despite their strong start to the season, the Twins would probably admit that theyíre not currently within a window of contention. Itís in their best interest to enter one sooner rather than later, and while there are various reasons for that, Mauer has to rank near the top of the list. All the talk we heard during the off-season about how the organization should set its sights on competing in 2016 never made any sense; are the Twins supposed to let three potentially great years from one of the best players in franchise history go to waste while waiting for prospects to (we hope) grow into big-league contributors?
Fortunately, the rebuilding timeline doesnít look as daunting as some have feared. In part, thatís because a couple of guys that the Twins expect to be part of their next contending core Ė Aaron Hicks and Oswaldo Arcia Ė are already getting their feet wet in the big leagues. Meanwhile, Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton are obliterating their current levels and could be on the move more quickly than anticipated.
Of course, pitching is the key piece in this equation, and in that department the Twins also seem headed rapidly in the right direction. Newly acquired starter Alex Meyer Ė who, letís face it, might be the single most important prospect in the system with the way the organization has put all its pitching eggs in the ďpotential aceĒ basket Ė is off to a torrid start in New Britain with a 1.69 ERA and plenty of strikeouts through three starts. His teammate and fellow new acquisition Trevor May has also flashed some dominance, though his command issues remain. Kyle Gibson has been solid in Triple-A.
It seems likely that at least two, and maybe all three, of these young hurlers will get a chance to pitch in the majors at some point this year, putting them in position to fill out a rotation that already likely features one or two quality long-term pieces.
Put it all together, knock on some wood, and youíve got an organization headed toward an ideal scenario: a group of promising young players with a bit of experience surrounding a still prime-aged superstar, with plenty of money available to fill in holes as needed.