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What does the return of Joe Mauer’s concussion symptoms mean for his future?

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The Twins’ catcher-turned-first baseman is again battling concussion symptoms as he nears free agency.

Kansas City Royals v Minnesota Twins
Please send good thoughts to Joe’s noggin.

The Twins were hoping they would be able to activate first baseman Joe Mauer from the disable list sometime this weekend, but it looks like that won’t be happening.

Even worse is the reason why: Mauer’s concussion symptoms have returned.

We all know the story by now. After years behind the plate, Mauer had a particularly rough day in mid-August of 2013, taking several foul tips off his catcher’s mask. He was placed on the DL with a seemingly innocuous concussion, but it turned out to be anything but innocuous. Mauer ended up missing the rest of the 2013 season, and in fact, never played catcher again. On the advice of doctors from the Mayo Clinic, Mauer was moved to first base permenantly in order to minimize future concussions that could potentially have a disastrous affect on both his career and life.

As Twins fans are painfully aware, however, playing first base doesn’t ensure an entirely concussion-free experience.

When the Twins placed Mauer on the DL back on May 19th, his injury was described predominantly as a “neck strain”. The first baseman traced that injury back to a diving catch he made against the Angels on May 11th, in which he suffered something like whiplash:

It was a Justin Upton foul pop that Mauer chased well down the right-field line during the third inning of a 5-4 comeback win. Angels star Mike Trout was at first base and appeared concerned about Mauer after he returned to his position.

“I remember I came back and kind of walked back gingerly,” Mauer said. “He goes, ‘Are you OK?’ I said, “I’ll probably feel that tomorrow.’ I didn’t think I’d keep feeling it. I was a little messed up there.”

Doctors told Mauer some concussion symptoms may return, but he was able to play for the rest of the week. While driving home after the game on May 18th, however, Mauer told the Pioneer Press “the symptoms started to really kind of pour on.” He passed doctors’ concussion tests at the time, but was placed on the DL with the neck strain as an added precaution.

When might Mauer return?

At this point, it’s unclear when Mauer will be back on the playing field — probably even to Mauer himself. Although he told the Star Tribune’s LEN3 that he doesn’t “anticipate it being a long or lengthy deal[,]” we all know concussions can be a fickle injury. He apparently has been taking batting practice and has no problems hitting, but feels the symptoms more while fielding and running. He’s also testing himself by sitting in the dugout during games when there’s all the lights and noise.

Mauer made it clear to reporters that he wants to make sure he is fully healthy before he returns, saying, “My goal is to come back and stay.”

Hopefully it doesn’t take Mauer too long to get his health to where he wants it to be, but after watching Mauer’s previous battles with concussion symptoms, and those of his former teammate Justin Morneau, I can’t help but be a bit worried.

The future of Mauer’s career

The return of Mauer’s concussion symptoms have me concerned for another reason: this year is the last of his eight-year, $184 million contract. Mauer has played all 1769 games of his career in a Minnesota Twins uniform, making him the longest-tenured active player who has played his whole career for a single team. After this season, the 35-year-old will be a free agent for the first time in his life.

If Mauer ends up spending significant time on the DL this year with concussion symptoms, or has to return to the DL again with such symptoms, it could significantly impact his value in free agency.

Don’t get me wrong — while I know some Twins fans disagree,it would absolutely break my heart to see Mauer playing in another team’s uniform. I don’t really want to see a huge market for Mauer. It doesn’t really worry me in any case, though, because Mauer doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who wants to play for any other team either (imagine what his parents would think).

My main worry is... what if the Twins don’t want to re-sign Mauer because of his history of concussion injuries? What if his history of concussions leads Mauer himself to decide the risk isn’t worth playing more? The longer Mauer stays on the DL, the more real these possibilities seem.

That Mauer might only have 70, 60, or even just 50 games left in his career, if that, is a scary thought. Of course, I’m not a doctor, nor am I privy to Mauer’s exact health status on a day-by-day basis, or the inner workings of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine’s minds. I could just be blowing things out of proportion, as I have done in the past with Mauer injuries. But the mortality of Mauer’s career suddenly feels much more real to me than it ever has in the past.

That said, get well soon, Joe.

Please.