Joe Mauer found himself in the news quite a bit this spring, as his future -- mainly whether he would become a free agent after the 2010 season -- was one of the biggest topics in baseball.
Now having signed an eight-year, $184 million contract extension with the Twins, Mauer's future in Minnesota is secure. His focus has always been on the upcoming season, and that's the case now as he prepares for what will be the first of many more seasons behind the plate for the Twins
Mauer, who turns 27 on April 19, is coming off the best season of his young career in which he batted .365 with a career-high 28 home runs and 96 RBIs. It all came over the span of five months, as Mauer missed all of Spring Training and the first month of the regular season because of inflammation in his lower back.
His performance in 2009 earned him his first American League MVP honors and the distinction of being one of the best players in the game today. With Opening Day on Monday, Mauer recently sat down with MLB.com to talk about his spring, the high expectations for the Twins in the '10 season and the excitement surrounding Target Field.
MLB.com: Last spring, you had a lower back injury that kept you from being able to get on the field at all with the team. So how have you felt this spring?
Mauer: I've been feeling pretty good. Spring gets a little long, but I'm feeling pretty good, pretty healthy. And now, I'm ready to get going.
MLB.com: Despite missing all of spring and the first month of last season, you delivered a career year in which you were named the American League MVP. What have you done differently this spring that you learned from going through what you did last year?
Mauer: Early on in spring, I didn't take too many swings. The last couple weeks, I started to ramp it up a bit, and I'm starting to feel really good at the plate now. I'm starting to use my whole body. We all talk about not trying to peak too early. It's nice being in a position where you know you're going to be on the team and, I guess, be the guy. You can take spring to work yourself toward that date. A lot of guys have to come in and be ready to go right away to make the team. The last couple years, I've been fortunate to ease into spring, and last year, I didn't have a choice. But this year has been going good.
MLB.com: This spring, all of the focus in the media and around baseball was on your contract negotiations with the Twins. Now that you've got a long-term deal in place, how happy are you to have that all behind you?
Mauer: It's nice. This is where I wanted to be. I've said that a lot over the last few days and years, I guess, but to tell you the truth, it's definitely nice to get it done and out of the way. I think it could have been a distraction, but I was so focused on this year. I'm telling myself to just worry about this year. That's what I've been doing.
MLB.com: During the whole negotiation process, you didn't seem to be affected much by the attention. How did you keep it separate from your focus on the field, and were you ever concerned about talks dragging into the season?
Mauer: It was pretty easy. My teammates helped out a lot. I wasn't one to really worry about it too much. I worry about the game. The game is hard enough than to worry about that. I always hoped that everything would work itself out and it did. I'm thankful that it worked out that way. In the season, you are in a different city every three to four days, and I'm sure that it would be a big story in every city that we went to. To get it done now and just worry about playing is a good thing.
MLB.com: With the contract, you are now going to be playing in your hometown, in a Twins uniform, for the next nine seasons. Has that sunk in for you yet?
Mauer: Not really (laughs). I always envisioned myself in this uniform for a long time. I'm still trying to wrap my head around that one. But I'm definitely happy about it, and we've got a lot of work to do this year. Even before we signed the contract, I said we have 162 games to worry about before we start worrying about '11 or '12. I don't think that mindset has changed.
SHAPING UP THE SCHEDULE
Early schedule The Twins kick off their season with a tough test on the road, facing the defending AL West Champion Angels in a four-game series at Angel Stadium followed by three contests with one of their division rivals, the White Sox, in Chicago.
Things don't get easier when the club returns home as they host the Red Sox for the first three games ever at Target Field. Having not yet played in their new stadium, the Twins will likely face an adjustment period at home early in the season. But they'll get plenty of chances to get acquainted there in May, when 18 of their 28 games are at home.
Interleague Play Brewers at Target Field on May 21-23 ... Braves at Target Field on June 11-13... Rockies at Target Field on June 15-17 ... Phillies at Citzens Bank Park June 18-20 ... Brewers at Miller Park on June 22-24 ... Mets at Citi Field on June 25-27
Key home dates:
April 12-15. The Twins open up Target Field with three contests against the Red Sox. It will mark the club's first outdoor series at home since the 1981 season.
May 3-5. This series will mark the first time the Twins have hosted the Tigers since that infamous Game 163 in October last season.
June 21-23. The border battle between the Twins and Brewers will take place for the first time at Target Field. It will also mark the first Interleague series that the Twins will host at their new home.
MLB.com: There is a lot of excitement around this team this spring, particularly when it comes to the offense and some of the additions you've made. Harmon Killebrew told me recently that it's one of the deepest lineups he's seen with this club in years. Are you excited about the potential of this lineup?
Mauer: Definitely. You see the potential when you have a guy like Jason Kubel; he hit seventh the other day, and he had 30 home runs and 100 RBIs last year. A guy like that hitting seventh, that doesn't happen a whole lot. We've said all along that it looks good on paper, but you still have to play the game and keep working. Anything can happen. Hopefully, everybody stays healthy, and we can go along and do the things that everybody is expecting us to do. There are a lot of expectations in this room, and hopefully, we get out there and stay healthy.
MLB.com: One of the biggest question marks coming into the year is the rotation. Last year, things had to be pieced together at the end due to some injuries and rough patches. But this spring, the group of starters has been impressive. Is it heartening to see how the starting staff has performed this spring?
Mauer: We've got a deep staff. We probably have six or seven guys that could pitch in the big leagues and be a good productive starter. You can never have too much pitching. Some guys might be disappointed that they might not break with the club, but it doesn't mean that they aren't going to help us out at some time this year. There are a lot of guys that are deserving of a spot. I think our staff could be a strength of ours as the season goes along.
MLB.com: The team has already suffered one significant loss this spring with Joe Nathan having to undergo season-ending Tommy John surgery. How do you guys cope with the loss of your All-Star closer?
Mauer: If you are looking to replace Joe Nathan, it's just not going to happen. He's been one of the best in the game for a lot of years. But that just gives somebody an opportunity to step up and take that role and run with it. We've kind of talked about it the last couple days with a closer-by-committee. Guys are going to get chances, and I'm sure if one guy steps up, takes that role and runs with it, that's going to be the guy. It's going to be a process early on. Our bullpen, we definitely have some capable guys in that bullpen, and hopefully, one of them steps up and takes that challenge.
MLB.com: Manager Ron Gardenhire has already named a few guys in that bullpen who are candidates to close -- Jon Rauch, Matt Guerrier, Jesse Crain and Jose Mijares. You've worked a lot with each of those pitchers. What could each one of them bring to the role?
Mauer: They are all a little different. You start with the most obvious difference, with Mijares being a lefty and the rest righties. You look at Mijares and you look at Crain, those guys are more power throwers. They have good stuff. Not saying that Rauch and Matty don't, they are more crafty. Rauchy can get it up there and Matty, too, but they rely more on movement and changing speeds. I can see it early on that we look at who is coming up and which matchups work best. I think it's good to have options. With a guy like Nathan, he has the ability to do both. We can't use Joe this year. We know that, and I think it puts everybody at ease because we have to move on without him.
MLB.com: There has been a lot of focus on the team, but another reason for the excitement this season is the opening of Target Field. How excited are you to move into the new outdoor ballpark?
Mauer: I'm real excited. I saw some pictures and some video of the Gophers (college baseball) game they held there this past weekend. It kind of got me pretty pumped up. It's going to be interesting to see how it plays. We just have to go through it, see how we deal with the weather and things like that, all sorts of new things in the park. But guys in here are excited.
MLB.com: With Opening Day just a few days away, the season is almost here. Having gone through the spring, how do you feel about this club's chances to repeat as AL Central champions?
Mauer: We feel good. It's an exciting year. Anything can happen and we know that. We just have to go out there and keep playing every game hard and keep winning series. That's been our motto ever since I've been here: to go out and win a series. You go out and try to win the next one and the next one. But right now, I'd say we all feel pretty good about our chances.
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.