"The offseason," Mauer said with a heavy sigh. "I didn't have much of one."
In a way, it's still ongoing and that's the unsettling part. Mauer, who underwent surgery for kidney blockage on Dec. 22, still hasn't been cleared for baseball activities. His main task in these early spring days is to regain his full strength. He says he'll be ready for opening day.
Right now? He would simply be content to swing a bat. It's something he hasn't done since Minnesota lost that 1-0, one-game playoff heartbreaker to the Chicago White Sox last Sept. 30.
Of course, the Twins are treating Mauer with all the respect and accord you would expect from a group of professional ballplayers toward a catcher who, with 25 pitchers in camp, can go nowhere near the bullpen to help with the workload.
"Absolutely," backup catcher Mike Redmond said. "To miss the first 10 days of spring training ... he timed it perfectly. He lets me do all this, then he'll roll right in and play in all the games. It's like he's ...
"On scholarship," Mauer deadpanned, completing Redmond's joke from the next locker with the impeccable timing of a stand-up comic.
It will not be a laughing matter if Mauer is not at full strength as the Twins' April 6 opener against Seattle approaches. But right now, they don't see the situation becoming that dire.
"He had a long year last year," general manager Bill Smith said. "He caught a lot of games. Our whole key is opening day. That's all we're focused on.
"We have an extra week of spring training this year because of the World Baseball Classic. It's seven weeks. So he can do nothing for a whole week and he's still right on schedule."
Sleeper ... Jason Kubel: Kubel's prospect star was once extremely bright, but a major knee reconstruction derailed him in 2005. Only last year did Kubel finally look like the hitter he was ruled capable of being. Now, he is entering his prime years at age 27 (this May). We project a modest .262-24-80-73 for him, which makes him a late-rounder in a standard mixed league, but if there is a guy on this team that might outproduce their draft position the most, it's Kubel.
Bust ... Nick Blackburn: We waited all of last season for Blackburn to lose his rotation spot, mostly due to the Triple-A dominance of Liriano, but he held it down all season, winning 11 games as a rookie. Blackburn is hittable, though, allowing 224 hits in 193 1/3 innings -- numbers that remind us more of a Carlos Silva-like starting pitcher. That most definitely is not someone you want to be compared with. Blackburn, at age 27, can prove to be a sleeper in the latter rounds, but our money is on avoiding him altogether. There are a slew of intriguing Twins pitching prospects that could push him to the bullpen.
Breakout ... Delmon Young: What in the world happened to the 30-30 potential of Young? Well, it did help the Rays score Matt Garza and a berth in the World Series. That trade looks like a bust for the Twins right now, but Young still is just 23 years old with plenty of room to grow. We figured Young would be good for 26 homers a season, not that many in 1,346 career at-bats. Despite the disappointing power numbers, Young's approach is decent (a career .292 average) and a little patience could pay huge divideds for his Fantasy owners this season.
-- Eric Mack
Top Prospects ('09 destination)
1. Aaron Hicks, OF, Low Class A
2. Ben Revere, OF, High Class A
3. Kevin Mulvey, RHP, Triple-A
4. Tyler Robertson, LHP, Double-A
5. Luke Hughes, 3B, Triple-A
|Complete 2009 Fantasy Draft Prep|
Mauer has been bothered by periodic back pain for years. Before last winter, it hadn't really raised any alarms. Until then, he just figured it was normal. Who doesn't have back pain from time to time?
Everyone else just figured it was the result of his lugging around those Silver Slugger awards (2006, '08), a Gold Glove ('08) and two batting titles ('06, '08).
This time, though, it was different.
The right side of his lower back had been hurting down the stretch last summer, and as the rest of his body calmed down and settled into the offseason, his back didn't.
"You know how you get toward the end of the year? A lot of things are barking," Mauer said. "This never seemed to go away into the offseason.
"We were trying to figure out what was wrong with me at year's end because physically, I wasn't feeling right. Then we just figured I needed time to rest."
A week became a month, a month turned into two, and pretty soon Mauer was on his way to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for evaluation.
He was diagnosed in mid-December with the blockage. Doctors ascertained that he had been born with the condition. Who knew?
There never was time to be scared.
"It was more frustrating, because I lost a month or more," Mauer said. "I wish we would have found it earlier and taken care of it."
On the other hand. ...
"That explains the pain I've been getting over the years."
The surgery was performed Dec. 22. Doctors went in through his abdomen, cleared the obstruction and sent him home on Christmas Eve.
Kind of messed up his Christmas shopping, but it could have been worse.
"A lot of things could have happened," Mauer said. "It could have escalated into kidney problems for the rest of my life, not just my playing career."
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As it is, Mauer's most important task right now is to strengthen his abdomen. What he's doing now is a lot of core exercises. And a lot of pacing.
"Seeing everybody here, I'm anxious to get out," he said. "It was easier when I was rehabbing at home."
At least, it was quieter back home in the frigid Upper Midwest. There, he could do his rehab in peace. Here, he does it and then spends a lot of time hanging out at his locker. Which makes him a sitting target, literally, while his supposed buddies accuse him of Cadillac-ing it.
"I was joking about that with his grandfather yesterday," Twins outfielder Michael Cuddyer said. "His grandfather said, 'Yeah, he just loves to be pampered.'"
Now that's a grandfather clause.
As modest a batting champion as you'll ever meet, Mauer absorbs all the arrows with a smile. He's established -- last season's .328 average earned him the second batting title of his career. And he's universally beloved -- no doubt he also led the AL in appearances as a groomsman during the offseason.
The weddings sandwiched his surgery. He stood up in ex-teammate Jason Bartlett's ceremony in November (Bartlett is now with Tampa Bay), and then he had the same honor in first baseman (and former roommate) Justin Morneau's wedding in January.
By then, under normal circumstances, he would have started his winter program of hitting, running and weightlifting.
If only these were normal circumstances. Good thing Mauer is the textbook definition of a guy who falls out of bed hitting.
"My biggest concern is getting some strength and getting my legs under me," said Mauer, who turns 26 in April. "I'd like to get out and start working with our new pitchers as soon as possible.
"This year, we've got a knuckleballer (veteran R.A. Dickey is in camp). I've never caught a knuckleballer before. It should be interesting."
Said Cuddyer: "Obviously, when you're talking internal organs, it's nothing to mess with. But he's established enough to know what he's got to do to get back to the level he can compete at. I think everyone trusts that fact."