Not only do the Minnesota Twins seem to contend for the American League Central division title each season, but they also possess quite a few high-end, high-upside fantasy baseball talents. That said, injury took quite a bite out of a few of these top guys in 2010. Closer Joe Nathan missed the entire season following Tommy John surgery. First baseman Justin Morneau played 81 games before suffering what ended up being a season-ending concussion. And catcher Joe Mauer dealt with nagging injuries and a sore knee for much of the campaign, though he kept playing and still provided ample fantasy value.
While Morneau and Nathan appear to be coming at a significant discount for 2011, if early drafts and the ESPN Fantasy summit meetings a few weeks ago are any indication, that's not the case with Mauer. While he suffered a major, if not surprising, drop in power last season, he still ended up fantasy's top backstop, a healthy bit ahead of Victor Martinez and Buster Posey on the ESPN Player Rater. He didn't win the league MVP or a batting title, as he did in 2009, but fantasy owners won't complain about a .327 batting average, 75 RBIs and 88 runs scored from their catcher. Mauer remains a stud, though I still doubt he'll hit more than 20 home runs in a season anytime soon.
Mauer is in the news because, like many on the comeback trail as spring training approaches, he recently told reporters he's going to be taking things mighty slowly following minor knee surgery in December. He also has been advising Nathan to avoid overexertion in February, which is wise advice for all players, really. We want you healthy in April and for the following six months, so unless you need to win a roster spot or are fighting for playing time, take it easy.
"My advice to Nathan, I'm taking that to heart, too," Mauer said. "I should be ready to go when we report. Just got to be smart about it and get ready for the season."
Well, I have no problem with that. Fantasy owners would like to see a healthy Mauer, because 28 home runs, 96 RBIs and a .365 batting average, his astounding numbers from 2009, are among the best any catcher has put up in a single season. While most predicted a reduction in home runs in 2010, I don't think single digits was expected. Surely the team's challenging Target Field dimensions didn't help, but Mauer didn't exactly drive the ball in road games, either. David Wright overcame his home stadium in 2010, so Mauer can, too. I just think there's a big difference with him playing catcher, and he has just one season of big-time home run production.
What I find interesting, though, is that Mauer's fantasy stock hasn't taken a hit in the past year, while his teammates haven't been as lucky. Surely a rebuilt elbow and a severe concussion rate as far tougher to overcome than what Mauer dealt with, but why can't Nathan and Morneau regain their value, too? I have Mauer ranked at the top of the catchers -- I fail to see a legitimate argument for anyone else -- but let's not lose site of the other top Twins.
Nathan is a top 10 closer, still. In fact, he might even be in the top five. Only Jonathan Broxton beat him out on the 2009 Player Rater. By now we're well aware that pitchers can come back strong from Tommy John surgery, and Nathan went under the knife before the 2010 season began. He has had plenty of time to rehabilitate. The Twins are saying all the right things, including that they'll move him back into the ninth inning role slowly, but this is Joe Nathan we're talking about. You think Matt Capps will get save chances if Nathan is healthy? Don't forget that Nathan was arguably fantasy's top closer from 2004-09 -- yes, even better than Mariano Rivera -- and he won't be the first potential Hall of Fame closer to miss a season and not miss a step. Trevor Hoffman missed nearly all of 2003 and saved 41 games with a sub-1.00 WHIP the next season. Billy Wagner was fantasy's top closer this past season, but threw a mere 15 2/3 innings the previous season. The fact that Nathan missed the entire 2010 campaign, and might not pitch during the first few weeks of meaningful spring training games, is irrelevant. If healthy, I still see him as one of fantasy's top closers, a sure top-10 guy, ahead of Francisco Rodriguez, Jonathan Papelbon and Broxton, among others.
As for Morneau, I don't think people realize what he was up to statistically when he ran into the knee of Toronto Blue Jays utilityman John McDonald breaking up a double play in early July. Extrapolate Morneau's numbers for a full season and I think he would have ended up as fantasy's top first baseman, even better than the great Albert Pujols. Morneau hit .345 with major power in 81 games, precisely half a season; perhaps he would have slowed at some point, but then again, he was a top 50 option in ESPN average live drafts in 2010, ninth at his position. I agree there is risk investing in Morneau, since there remains uncertainty about his condition and his ability to avoid future concussions, but I'd still take him in the top 10 at the position, over Adam Dunn and in a similar spot overall to Prince Fielder and Ryan Howard.