The Mauer Rules

It was just a couple years ago that the Minnesota Twins were in the same position with a superstar as they find themselves in now. Yet there is quite a big difference in the type of media coverage given to the Johan Santana saga in the winter of 2007-08 and the one presently happening with Joe Mauer.

Both superstars were entering the final year of their contracts, and both superstars were expected to be among the highest-paid players in the game when it was all said and done.

But with Santana, there were non-stop trade rumors from all sorts of sources involving all sorts of teams. That’s not the case this time around with Mauer.

I wonder why. I can’t imagine there’s less interest in trading for Mauer than there is trading for Santana.

Maybe the Twins have changed their way of thinking since the Santana trade. When the Twins determined a couple years ago that they were unwilling or unable to meet Santana’s contract demands, he was traded to the New York Mets for four prospects. Three of those four prospects are already out of the Twins system.

At the time, in the court of public opinion, that trade was universally panned. Looking back two years later, in reality it has been panned too.

Things appear to be different this time around with Mauer. Perhaps the Twins would rather take the two first-round picks they would get if Mauer were to walk away after the 2010 season. Or maybe they realize it would be a public-relations nightmare to trade the Minnesota boy prior to the opening of a new stadium.

Or maybe, just maybe, they’re really willing to pony up. Maybe they feel real confident a deal will get done.

In any case, the way the Twins are tackling the Mauer situation is far different from the way things were done with Santana.

Is Portland this good?

After the University of Minnesota defeated Butler in a battle of Top 25 teams Thursday at the 76 Classic in Anaheim, the Gophers seemingly got a break when Portland beat UCLA later that night.

But Portland knocked off another big-conference opponent Friday with a victory over the Gophers.

The Pilots are now 5-0, with victories against Minnesota, UCLA and Oregon already this season. They’re off to their best start in 14 years, with eighth-ranked West Virginia due up on their schedule on Sunday.

The Gophers shot just 33 percent from the floor on Friday and 16 percent from 3-point range. The Pilots weren’t exactly scorching the nets either, shooting 39 percent. But they held a 39-28 rebounding advantage, something you just shouldn’t see a big-conference team give up against a small-conference team.

The Gophers face Texas A&M on Sunday.

Out on Black Friday? Catch me on the radio.

Black Friday might be the worst day of the year, as far as I’m concerned. You couldn’t pay me to get up at the crack of dawn to go to a store today. So when a colleague asked me to take his place today on "Sports Talk" from 1-2 p.m. on 970-AM WDAY, how could I resist?

In studio today – along with myself – will be sports writers Eric Peterson and Heath Hotzler. Our guest today will be UND men’s hockey writer Brad Schlossman from the Grand Forks Herald. He’ll discuss the Subway Holiday Classic tournament that runs today and tomorrow and features a field of four teams, three of which are ranked among the top six in the country.

We’ll also be discussing the real reason for the Minnesota Vikings’ success this season. And we’ll be providing our own Turkey of the Year candidates, kind of a spinoff of Patrick Reusse‘s annual column in the Star Tribune.

So tune in, and feel free to call as well. (701) 293-9000. That’s 1-2 p.m. today on 970-AM.

Top teams of the decade

I’m not going to lie. I completely forgot last week about my plans to run a Top 10 list every Friday morning on this blog. So it’s time to get back on my game.

This week, let’s take a look at the top teams of this decade. I feel like I’d be opening a can of worms by including area colleges like NDSU, Minnesota, UND, and the like since, well, if I included last year’s Bison basketball team, people would ask, "Why not the volleyball team?" or "Why not the softball team?"

Plus, I plan to do a worst teams of the decade, too, and I don’t want colleges or high schools included in that either. So I’m just going to look at Minnesota pro teams for this. And I’ve decided to leave out the 2009 Vikings. Their place on this list can be determined when their season ends.

Here we go. The top five Minnesota pro teams of the past decade:

  • 5. The 2000 Minnesota Vikings. Led by head coach Denny Green, the Vikings finished 11-5 to win the NFC Central division. Daunte Culpepper, Robert Smith, Cris Carter and Randy Moss helped give the Vikings a dominant offense as the Vikes finished fifth in the NFL in scoring that season. The defense, however, was ranked 24th. Minnesota had a first-round bye in the playoffs, then defeated New Orleans 34-16 in the NFC divisional round, giving the Vikes a matchup against the New York Giants with a Super Bowl berth on the line. All that needs to be said is "41-0." It was a Vikings loss that lives in infamy.
  • 4. The 2002-03 Minnesota Wild. The Wild’s run to the conference finals might be considered the most thrilling postseason run in this decade by any Minnesota team. The Wild finished third in their division to get a playoff berth. They won their first two playoff series in seven games apiece against the Colorado Avalanche and the Vancouver Canucks, but they were swept by the Anaheim Ducks and red-hot goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere in the Western Conference finals. The likes of Richard Park and Wes Walz remain fresh in the minds of Minnesota hockey fans after their unlikely playoff run.
  • 3. The 2002 Minnesota Twins. Twins manager Tom Kelly put the franchise back on the map in 2001 thanks to a second-place finish in the AL Central. It was the Twins’ first season with a winning record in nearly a decade. In 2002, threats of contraction hung over the team after it was reported that in November 2001 owners voted 28-2 in favor of contracting the Twins and the Montreal Expos. Many of the Twins players viewed the 2002 season as their last chance to play together, as an injunction prevented MLB from contracting the team before the season. The Twins won their first division title in 11 years in 2002 and defeated the Oakland A’s in a thrilling five-game AL Division Series. Minnesota won Game 1 of the ALCS against Anaheim before losing the next four. The ALDS win remains the last playoff series won by the Twins.
  • 2. The 2003-04 Minnesota Timberwolves. Finally, the Timberwolves had their breakthrough. Behind NBA MVP Kevin Garnett, the Wolves won a postseason series for the first time, having been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in each of the previous seven seasons. The Wolves knocked the Denver Nuggets and Sacramento Kings out of the playoffs before facing the eventual NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals. The Wolves were eliminated in six games, and that postseason remains as the last playoff appearance made by the franchise. One note: It’s the only team in Wolves history to allow fewer than 100 points per game for a season.
  • 1. The 2006 Minnesota Twins. Never have I felt so strongly about a Minnesota team winning a championship this decade as I did about this team. The Twins were red-hot going into the playoffs, having won the AL Central division title on the final day of the regular season after winning that Sunday, then watching Kansas City defeat Detroit. The Twins boasted a ton of talent. There was the AL MVP (Justin Morneau), the AL batting champion (Joe Mauer), a perennial Gold Glove center fielder (Torii Hunter), the AL Cy Young Award winner (Johan Santana) and the stud closer (Joe Nathan). The Twins won 96 games that season, the most they’d won since 1970. Up first were the AL West champion Oakland A’s, a perennial playoff team that, as history’s shown, was making its only playoff appearance in the last six years. The A’s, led by a pitching staff of Barry Zito, Esteban Loaiza and Dan Haren, held the Twins to just six runs in a three-game sweep that proved deflating for area baseball fans.

I know a lot of you are probably wondering how I can pick a team that didn’t win a playoff game as the best team of the decade. It was a tough call, but it’s hard to dispute that the 2006 Twins team was loaded. Their playoff flop is how baseball works. The season’s a marathon – 162 games long – but it can all end in three games. The Twins offense slumped, and the season was over quickly.

Timberwolves looking historically inept

The New Jersey Nets’ 0-15 start might be distracting the attention of NBA fans across the country, but fans in this area are well aware of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 1-14 start.

The perception of this year’s Wolves team has changed a lot since that season-opening, buzzer-beating victory against – who else? – New Jersey nearly a month ago. Since then, the Wolves have lost 14 consecutive games, making their 1-14 start the worst in franchise history through 15 games.

Is this the worst Wolves team in history? Could this be the worst team in NBA history?

I doubt the Wolves will break the NBA record for fewest victories, which is nine. And I don’t think this is the worst Wolves team either.

They’re still missing one of their best players in Kevin Love, who should be back on the court in a few weeks. And while their defense is absolutely deplorable at times, I can’t imagine this team at the end of the year is going to finish with a worse record than some of those teams in the early 1990s (the pre-Kevin Garnett era).

Favre’s on-field success reaching improbable levels

I’m sure a lot of you out there thought Brett Favre was going to be good. But we can all agree that no one thought he would be this good.

The 40-year-old Minnesota Vikings quarterback has won MVP awards and a Super Bowl, but it’s hard not to notice that he’s enjoying the best season of his storied NFL career.

Where’s John Madden? Oh yeah, Favre outlasted the Favre-loving broadcaster too. He retired prior to this season, a year too soon apparently.

Here are the facts:

  • Favre has a 112.1 quarterback rating. His career-high QB rating was 99.5, which was in 1995-96.
  • Favre has 21 touchdown passes this season. His career-high of 39 was set in 1996-97.
  • Favre has only 3 interceptions. His career-low was 13, last reached in 1996-97.

The interceptions are probably the most shocking number thus far. For his NFL career, he’s averaged 1.14 picks/game, and this year, he’s tossing one every 3+ games. Even his career-low for a season of 13 is roughly 1 per game.

So, what’s going on? Well, for one, Favre never played with a running game like the one he has right now with Adrian Peterson. Peterson remains one of the premier running backs in the NFL. No offense to Ahman Green, Dorsey Levens, Samkon Gado or anyone else that played running back for the Packers, but Peterson is a superior runner to those guys.

Other than that, I can’t put my finger on anything. I’ve always liked Sidney Rice, and he’s developed into the Vikings’ top receiving threats. And even with Percy Harvin and Visanthe Shiancoe playing well, I can’t say the Vikings receiving corps is better than what Green Bay had with the likes of Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, Robert Brooks, Sterling Sharpe, Antonio Freeman and others.

Anyone else have thoughts? Can Favre possibly keep this up? Has Madden’s retirement allowed Favre to loosen up?

At least we still have Frank Caliendo.


UPDATE: 10:44 p.m.

The Star Tribune just posted Patrick Reusse‘s column on the 2009 Turkey of the Year. For those who are unaware, it’s a tradition I look forward to every year. I swear I have not read it yet, but I assume Tim Brewster will win. He’s due. Nick Punto, thanks to a baserunning gaffe in the playoffs and a lousy explanation, will garner consideration.

Keeping Mauer is simply a smart baseball decision

I know this marks the third straight day of blogging about Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer, but what can I say? He’s on my mind and a lot of other people’s minds after winning the AL’s MVP award on Monday.

Forum colleagues Eric Peterson and Heath Hotzler got into a good debate on "Sports Talk" – as always from 1-2 p.m. weekdays on 970-AM WDAY – regarding Mauer’s future with the team. Mauer, of course, is entering the final year of his contract.

Peterson said that the Twins should keep Mauer at all costs. Hotzler said the Twins should trade Mauer because his value will never be higher and because paying for Mauer would mean the Twins would be unable to afford to put adequate talent around him.

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I side with Peterson on this one. And anyone who reads this blog knows I’m a big fan of Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated. He’s got a great post about Mauer on his blog that all of you should read here.

My belief is that Mauer is the most irreplaceable player in baseball. He’s a catcher coming off of a season that he hit .365 with 28 homers. There is no other player in the game today with that type of skill set who can play catcher. Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals is the best player in the game today, but no player would be tougher to replace than Mauer.

As Posnanski points out, who’s even remotely in his class? Victor Martinez put up great numbers, but he plays quite a few of his games at first base. Brian McCann is a great catcher, but his OPS was roughly 200 points lower than Mauer’s in 2009. And after that, who are we talking about? Mauer leaves, and the Twins sign Miguel Olivo?

I haven’t forgotten who manned the backstop position for the Twins in the 1990s. Greg Myers, Matt Walbeck, Marcus Jensen, a washed-up Terry Steinbach, Matthew LeCroy

From a public-relations standpoint, the Twins should keep Mauer with a new stadium on the horizon. He’s from Minnesota, which gives him the "one of us" billing. But even if he was from Myanmar, the Twins should keep him.

The Twins would be challenged to put adequate talent around Mauer because he’s likely going to get an extension paying him $20-25 million per year. But the Twins will always be challenged because any team that’s not the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets or Cubs must develop young players in order to be successful.

Target Field is supposed to fetch the Twins an additional $40 million in revenue each season, which in turn is to lead to a $20 million jump in payroll. So signing Mauer and building a team around him is no more challenging now than it was before, considering the payroll boost.

I heard the argument today that the Twins just don’t operate this way, that they don’t sign players to contracts like that. But rumor had it that the Twins offered Johan Santana a five-year, $100 million deal before trading him away a couple years ago. Granted, everyone knew he wouldn’t take it, but the Twins must have been somewhat serious.

The difference between the Twins’ situation now and in the past is they actually have their own stadium. They’re in complete control of their financial well-being. I read earlier today that the Vikings – per the Metrodome agreement – received all of the money from luxury suites at Twins games, plus 75 percent of concession money. Why do you think the Vikings are ramping up efforts to get a new stadium? The Twins dough isn’t there anymore for them.

Should the Twins be concerned about a player like Mauer eating up 20 percent of their payroll? Not as concerned as they should be about life without him. Re-signing Mauer to a contract like that isn’t about numbers like that. Catchers that hit .365 don’t grow on trees.

Re-signing Mauer is simply a smart baseball decision.

Mauer reaches pinnacle of his profession

I’ve said a lot of dumb things in nearly three decades on this planet, much of those spent as a sports fan.

Rewind back to 2001, when the Minnesota Twins – after years and years spent in the basement of the AL Central – found themselves in the hunt for a division title. Ultimately, the Cleveland Indians would win the Central in 2001, but the Twins had clearly turned the corner thanks to a group of young players led by Torii Hunter, Doug Mientkiewicz, Corey Koskie and Brad Radke.

The Twins had the No. 1 pick in the 2001 June amateur draft by virtue of a terrible 2000 season under two-time World Series manager Tom Kelly. It was in that draft the Twins chose Joe Mauer with the first overall pick, a hometown high school catcher from Cretin-Derham Hall.

I was awfully critical of the pick. I said at the time the Twins were going the cheap route by taking a high school kid instead of a more proven college commodity like pitcher Mark Prior. The Twins were using the fact that Mauer was a Minnesotan as an excuse as to why they wouldn’t spend the money for Prior or another college star, Mark Teixeira.

The Twins in 2001 were finally good again, too, and a college-aged player would be more ready to help that group win. Instead, it would be a few years before Mauer got to the big leagues, and I thought the Twins window may have closed by then.

And over the years, Mauer has continued to make that argument look more and more silly. I was definitely wrong, and Mauer showed me long ago that he was worth the gamble. Prior’s career has been hampered by arm problems after a good first season with the Chicago Cubs.

Mauer won the AL MVP on Monday, beating out Teixeira for the honors. The AL’s leader in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage collected 27 of 28 first-place votes. As I anticipated yesterday, it was a bit of a landslide.

And now the minds of Twins fans turn to Mauer’s contract, which runs out at the end of next season. With an MVP award and three batting titles under his belt, is Mauer too expensive for the Twins to keep? Can the organization afford to let him go, much as it has with previous stars like Hunter and Johan Santana?

I don’t think the Twins can afford to let him walk. I continue to believe the two sides will get an extension done, and it will happen this offseason. The bigger challenge for the Twins might be trying to field a quality team around Mauer when he’s making $20 million per year, roughly 20 percent of the projected payroll.

Mauer should be celebrating

When the Minnesota Twins stepped onto the field at Yankee Stadium for Game 1 of the American League Division Series last month, they were heavy underdogs to the eventual world champion New York Yankees. A series victory for the Twins would have been considered a huge upset.

The tables have turned when it comes to the American League MVP award, which will be announced Monday.

Twins catcher Joe Mauer is the front-runner to win his first MVP award. The other candidates – namely Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira of the Yankees – have great seasons. In many other seasons, they would have a legitimate chance.

But quite honestly, I’d be shocked – absolutely shocked – if Mauer didn’t win the award. In fact, I think when the voting is revealed Monday, the results will show it wasn’t even that close.

Let’s review the top three candidates:

  • Jeter: A very popular candidate, especially since he’s never won an MVP award. But as I told a colleague last week, this shouldn’t be a lifetime achievement award. He hit .334 with over 100 runs scored and improved defense when compared to past seasons, according to FanGraphs. He also stole 30 bases, which was nearly a career high.
  • Teixeira: He hit .292 with 39 homers, 122 RBIs and 114 runs scored, posting a .948 OPS. That’s incredible run production, making him in my opinion the top candidate from the game’s top team.  But an argument could be made that Alex Rodriguez is the more valuable player, when you consider how much Teixeira struggled when Rodriguez was out of the lineup in April.
  • Mauer: Led the American League in batting average (.365), on-base percentage (.444) and slugging percentage (.587), something that hasn’t been done since George Brett did it. And he plays the most defensively and physically demanding position in the game. I mentioned in a previous blog post that Ted Williams was the only hitter in the last 60 years or so to hit .380 with 30 homers in a season. Mauer was 15 batting points and 2 homers away from accomplishing that.

I think what should help Mauer the most is when you compare him to his fellow catchers. When you compare Teixeira to other first basemen, his numbers aren’t that much better than Kendry Morales of the Los Angeles Angels. Jeter was only slightly better statistically that Jason Bartlett of the Tampa Bay Rays at the shortstop position.

But Mauer? Who else compares to him? From what I can tell, the next highest OPS among catchers in the AL is by Victor Martinez of Boston, and he also plays first base. Martinez, by the way, posted a .861 OPS, which is very respectable, but far less than Mauer’s league-leading 1.031.

In all likelihood Monday, Mauer will be joining an exclusive group of Twins players to win AL MVPs. The only other Twins to win are Zoilo Versalles in 1965, Harmon Killebrew in 1969, Rod Carew in 1977 and Justin Morneau in 2006.

Have the Gophers hit bottom yet?

Quarterback Adam Weber seems to be regressing. The running game is non-existent. Jedd Fisch‘s play-calling couldn’t be less creative.

But the question is, has the University of Minnesota football hit rock bottom yet?

Gophers fans have to be concerned that this program maybe, just maybe, could be in worse shape next season.

The announcers during Saturday’s ESPN broadcast made a good point as the Gophers were on their way to a 12-0 defeat at the hands of Iowa. One of them said that the Gophers defense – which was supposed to be a weakness – appears to be the team’s strength.

The defense did the job Saturday, but the offense again came up short despite numerous chances to score.

The problem the Gophers will face next season is that their entire defensive front seven – all seven of them! – are seniors. This was the last regular-season game for all of them.

Granted, one should assume Weber will show a little improvement next season. But you can’t really do that either because he seems to be getting worse as the seasons pass, not better.

The point that head coach Tim Brewster made again prior to the South Dakota State game last week, how he sees no recruiting benefit in playing the Dakota I-AA schools, doesn’t really make much sense.

You think recruits aren’t impressed by beating SDSU? Think about next season, when you have to bring this team into TCF Bank Stadium and host games against Ohio State, Penn State and USC. Beating lower-level schools might not draw them into signing, but getting pummeled at home by the big boys on national TV is far more damaging.