Mauer, Twins' calculated risk, pays off

June 18, 2006|By DAN CONNOLLY | DAN CONNOLLY,SUN REPORTER

Maybe it was uncommon insight. Maybe guts. Maybe both.

Whatever the case, it worked, demonstrating once again that the best organizations in baseball are confident enough to chance screwing up.

Minnesota Twins general manager Terry Ryan and scouting director Mike Radcliff already had the respect of their peers. Now they look like geniuses.

Five years ago though, they were thought to be cheap, taking a chance or both.

In June 2001, the Twins had the top pick in baseball's first-year player draft. Available was the University of Southern California's Mark Prior - one of the most polished players ever to come out of college.

It would have been a no-brainer, except Prior was destined to get big money. And who knows if he would have considered signing with the Twins, a team that was potentially facing contraction by commissioner Bud Selig? So critics say the Twins went cheap and PR-minded and took a high school catcher who grew up in St. Paul, less than 10 miles from the Metrodome, instead of a potential franchise ace.

"There were a few eyebrows raised when we took a catcher first, but locally I think a lot of people were hoping we would take him," Ryan said. "I think nationally people were thinking we went the wrong route, we went a cheap route. That's the stuff that you hear."

Ryan wants you to know this: His small-market club took then-18-year-old Joe Mauer because Radcliff believed Mauer was the best player, regardless of economics.

Really.

"If [Ryan] didn't have a track record, I would say he is full of baloney," one rival GM said last week. "But their track record speaks for itself. They don't make a lot of mistakes, I'll tell you that."

It's not like Mauer signed for 100 bucks and a Kent Hrbek bobblehead doll, either. He received one of baseball's largest bonuses in history, $5.15 million. Even so, Prior got a five-year, $10.5 million deal from the Chicago Cubs.

The big right-hander quickly made it easy to second-guess Ryan. Prior was up with the Cubs by 2002, while Mauer hit four homers for Single-A Quad Cities. Prior won 18 games in 2003 and finished third in the National League Cy Young Award voting; Mauer tore up Double-A.

The critics chirped.

"How could you not [criticize] a little bit?" Mauer said. "But I always thought I could make it here and do well."

Five years after the draft, Prior, 25, is on the disabled list for the fifth time since July 2003. He hasn't pitched for the Cubs this season and has made just 48 starts since that outstanding 2003 campaign. And Mauer? Entering the weekend, he was leading the majors in hitting in just his second full season. He won the most recent American League Player of the Week honor. Only 23, he is believed to be just the third player in baseball history to reach base four times in five consecutive games. He is also among the league leaders in throwing out runners, and is continually praised by his teammates.

"He's technically sound at almost every facet of the game," Ryan said. "Mechanically, he has a beautiful swing. Receiving, he's soft and quiet. At the plate, he is calm and quiet. Throwing, his ball is true with velocity. He's still learning, believe me."

Everyone else has learned the Twins know what they're doing. Not only do they have what looks to be a franchise player at the position hardest to fill, but he's a local guy. He's the good-looking, aw-shucks, All-American kid from down the road, a marketing department's dream. He's the one the young girls wearing the No. 7 jerseys screech for. Mauer is, in concept anyway, the Twins' backstop version of Cal Ripken.

The no-nonsense Ryan smiles slightly at that thought.

"I hope that is the case. I hope all of that comes true and all of that is part of the history with us and him," Ryan said. "But you can't get out there too far. He has been in the game a year and two months. Let's see how things go." Still, even if injuries or cruel baseball reality strike down Mauer, it's obvious now that the Twins were justified in taking the local kid with the football scholarship to Florida State.

Ryan admits that the decision wasn't made until the final day. In the end, it was a two-player race between Mauer and Prior with Mount St. Joseph alum Mark Teixeira (fifth overall to the Texas Rangers) a close third. Ryan's pretty sure he could have signed Prior. And, despite the recent injury history, Ryan's still pretty sure Prior will live up to the hype.

"Prior is a hard worker," Ryan said. "He'll get healthy and all of a sudden he'll be on his way. I wouldn't worry about him."

But the Twins have their man. They aren't looking back. They also aren't thumbing their noses at their critics.

"I don't say a thing to them now," Ryan said. "Ten years from now, I'd be interested in what we would say."

Five years ago, Ryan and his people listened to their talent evaluators. They blocked out all the experts, all the outside advice. They took a calculated risk with confidence and accepted the consequences.

That's how the best organizations - in baseball or anywhere else - do it.

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