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Richard Justice

Safety first: Mauer's position change makes sense

Safety first: Mauer's position change makes sense

Safety first: Mauer's position change makes sense

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The Minnesota Twins probably can't contend without getting a full, healthy and productive season from Joe Mauer. As he approached 1,000 games behind the plate and as the toll on his body continued to rise, that didn't seem likely to happen.

That's the bottom line in the club's announcement on Monday that Mauer would move permanently to first base in 2014. He has played 140 games once in the past five seasons, and as he approaches his 31st birthday, that number didn't figure to go up.

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General manager Terry Ryan does nothing haphazardly, so he made the decision only after consulting with an assortment of doctors about the risk of additional concussions. With Mauer under contract for five more seasons, the Twins wanted more than last season's 113 games.

If you're a Twins fan, your takeaway from all of this is basic: This is the best way to keep your best player on the field. Mauer is a year removed from leading the American League with a .416 on-base percentage and was just a tick off that (.404) in 2013.

Mauer will never approach his 28-home run power numbers of 2009 because of the switch to Target Field, but he can still be one of the best offensive players in the game.

Ryan's bottom line was to do whatever he had to do to get Mauer on the field as often as possible, and hopefully, the switch to first base will do it. In the end, that's all that matters.

Once when Sparky Anderson was being quizzed on how to get one of his Cincinnati Reds on the field, he interrupted the questioning to set the record straight.

"This guy," Sparky said, "his position is cleanup hitter. We'll figure out what kind of glove to give him."

Mauer is too much of a perfectionist and too committed to his defense to approach it that way. And he can impact games at first base. Perhaps not the way he impacted them at catcher, but a good first baseman can dramatically upgrade a defensive infield by his ability maneuver around the bag and save errors on bad throws.

Here's the other takeaway for Twins fans: Your club is close, really close to being competitive. Ryan has upgraded the inventory of starting pitching the past two years and will do so again this offseason. With baseball's best prospect, 19-year-old outfielder Byron Buxton, on the fast track to the big leagues, there are good times around the corner.

This is a bitter pill for Mauer on a couple of levels. For one thing, he saw a future with Minnesota in which he and Justin Morneau would still be the faces of the franchise for years to come. Mauer wanted them both still around for the next generation of playoff teams.

That possibility ended when Morneau was traded to the Pirates in August. With the opening at first base, Ryan saw it as the perfect opportunity to make a switch.

As a catcher, Mauer prided himself not just on his offense, but on his ability to impact games in other ways. This isn't about throwing out baserunners or blocking pitches in the dirt, either.

Mauer's gift was his preparation and his ability to get pitchers to trust him and execute his game plan. He was so good that he allowed his pitchers to get into a rhythm and to work fast and throw strikes.

But in agreeing to the move, Mauer acknowledged that the possibility of future concussions simply was too frightening, not just in terms of playing time, but in having a normal post-baseball life.

The Twins emphasized on Monday that Mauer is symptom free and that he'll have a normal offseason in terms of his preparation for Spring Training. He'll work relentlessly to be a great defensive first baseman, and it would be a mistake to think he won't be.

It'll look odd not seeing Mauer wearing the catcher's gear on Opening Day next season. But last season ended on Aug. 19 with a foul ball off the mask. If this switch allows him to play a full season, the Twins will be much better off, and so will Mauer.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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