Spotlight finds Mauer after historic '06

Spotlight finds Mauer after historic '06 season

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The question came up casually as Joe Mauer and Twins hitting coach Joe Vavra stood behind one of the batting cages at the team's Spring Training complex on Thursday afternoon.

"So where do you go from here, Joe?" Vavra asked his young catcher.

It may seem like a simple question, but it's what almost everyone around baseball seems to be asking.

Following a season in which the 23-year-old Mauer earned All-Star honors for the first time and became the first catcher to win an American League batting title, the answer certainly isn't as easy as it seems.

Considering that Mauer flirted with .400 for half of the 2006 season and has cemented his status as one of the best young backstops in the game, it's hard to pinpoint just where he can improve.

But Mauer's teammates and coaches are among those who believe that there is more to come from the talented young star.

"Joe has such a great grasp of his game, but there are things that come with experience, like continuing to learn hitters, pitchers and even being more vocal," backup catcher Mike Redmond said. "The thing is, you have a guy like him who had such a tremendous year, and everybody goes, 'Where do you go from here?' But as a player, you don't think of it like that. Even when you hit .347 and earn a batting title, you're like, 'Man, I've got to have a good year, because I have to prove to everybody that it wasn't a fluke.'"

There will certainly be some pressure on Mauer to show that the results of his '06 season weren't a one-time thing. By hitting .347 with 84 RBIs and posting a .429 on-base percentage, Mauer set the bar extremely high for himself.

But as for those increased expectations, Mauer isn't too concerned.

"To be honest, they've been kind of high since I've been here," Mauer said with a laugh. "So I wouldn't say I feel it any more than before. As long as you go out there and do your best, that's all you can ask for."

Attention is nothing new for the St. Paul native, who has lived in a fishbowl since signing with his hometown team as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2001 First-Year Player Draft. Pundits quickly labeled the Twins foolish for selecting Mauer over the more experienced college right-hander Mark Prior, and the pressure was on the young catcher to prove them wrong.

Now, six years later, as Mauer has emerged as one of the top players in the game, focus has shifted regarding just how much he can still accomplish.

The development process has been a bit speedier for Mauer than for most others. With such a natural swing, he has never had a hard time achieving offensive production, and despite having played just over two years in the big leagues, Mauer has found consistency. He holds a .321 average in 306 career Major League games.

"His approach is going to be the same no matter what he hits from year to year," Vavra said. "Right now, he's in the third spot of that order, because he's the best hitter. It doesn't mean he's the best RBI guy, [and] it doesn't mean he's the best power guy. But will that come in time? Sure. Does he want it right now? He's content with doing what he's doing."

Mauer defines success as more than just what he does offensively. Playing arguably the most important position on the field, he has worked equally hard over the past few seasons to become as strong a presence behind the plate as he is at it.

Part of the maturation process for Mauer has been the development of his leadership skills. A quiet guy, almost to a fault, Mauer was often hesitant to speak up during his first few seasons.

But with experience has come an ability to be the strong voice when needed.

"He's been a good catcher since he got here," Twins right-hander Carlos Silva said. "The thing is, now, I think he feels more comfortable. When he started, he was working with pitchers like Johan Santana and Brad Radke, and maybe he felt like he didn't want to try and tell them what he thinks. But he makes his own decisions now. And that's what has made him an even better catcher."

But while Mauer focuses on improvement, it's clear that individual accomplishments come secondary for him.

"My main goal is to get us back to the playoffs," Mauer said. "Whether that means I hit .350 again or I hit .250, I would be fine with that, as long as we make the playoffs. If we get to the postseason, that means we have a shot to get to the World Series. Anything can happen once you get to October, so that's my main priority."

One thing that seems certain is that Mauer won't be content to look back at last season and rest on what he's already achieved. Knowing that he broke barriers by becoming the first AL catcher to lead the league in hitting may be impressive, but even Mauer admits that he can't truly comprehend it.

"You almost have to forget about it and keep working on getting better," Mauer said. "Maybe when I look back after I'm done playing, then I can appreciate it. Don't get me wrong -- I'm very glad it happened, but right now, I'm focused on what I can still do."

As for what exactly Mauer still has left to realize in the future, it's hard to find limits. Seeing what he's already done is enough to leave many in awe.

"He's going to continue his growth as a catcher and a hitter," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "It's hard for me to say, 'Continue your growth' when you hit .347, but we always say, 'You've got something you can learn,' and he will continue to learn."

And if that's the case, Gardenhire feels that nothing is off limits for Mauer.

"If he can maintain what he's done for a few years here," Gardenhire said, "you'll definitely see him in that Hall of Fame someday."

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.