Spotlight finds Mauer after historic '06
Twins catcher faced with expectations for encore despite youth
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The question came up casually as Joe Mauer and Twins hitting coach Joe Vavra stood behind one of the batting cages at the team's Spring Training complex on Thursday afternoon."So where do you go from here, Joe?" Vavra asked his young catcher. It may seem like a simple question, but it's what almost everyone around baseball seems to be asking. Following a season in which the 23-year-old Mauer earned All-Star honors for the first time and became the first catcher to win an American League batting title, the answer certainly isn't as easy as it seems. Considering that Mauer flirted with .400 for half of the 2006 season and has cemented his status as one of the best young backstops in the game, it's hard to pinpoint just where he can improve. But Mauer's teammates and coaches are among those who believe that there is more to come from the talented young star. "Joe has such a great grasp of his game, but there are things that come with experience, like continuing to learn hitters, pitchers and even being more vocal," backup catcher Mike Redmond said. "The thing is, you have a guy like him who had such a tremendous year, and everybody goes, 'Where do you go from here?' But as a player, you don't think of it like that. Even when you hit .347 and earn a batting title, you're like, 'Man, I've got to have a good year, because I have to prove to everybody that it wasn't a fluke.'" There will certainly be some pressure on Mauer to show that the results of his '06 season weren't a one-time thing. By hitting .347 with 84 RBIs and posting a .429 on-base percentage, Mauer set the bar extremely high for himself. But as for those increased expectations, Mauer isn't too concerned. "To be honest, they've been kind of high since I've been here," Mauer said with a laugh. "So I wouldn't say I feel it any more than before. As long as you go out there and do your best, that's all you can ask for." Attention is nothing new for the St. Paul native, who has lived in a fishbowl since signing with his hometown team as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2001 First-Year Player Draft. Pundits quickly labeled the Twins foolish for selecting Mauer over the more experienced college right-hander Mark Prior, and the pressure was on the young catcher to prove them wrong. Now, six years later, as Mauer has emerged as one of the top players in the game, focus has shifted regarding just how much he can still accomplish. The development process has been a bit speedier for Mauer than for most others. With such a natural swing, he has never had a hard time achieving offensive production, and despite having played just over two years in the big leagues, Mauer has found consistency. He holds a .321 average in 306 career Major League games. "His approach is going to be the same no matter what he hits from year to year," Vavra said. "Right now, he's in the third spot of that order, because he's the best hitter. It doesn't mean he's the best RBI guy, [and] it doesn't mean he's the best power guy. But will that come in time? Sure. Does he want it right now? He's content with doing what he's doing."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.