Peter Gammons in his column at ESPN.com and Kevin Rozell in his Bleacher Report column “Could Yanks’ Land Mauer on the Open Market After 2010 Season?” both highlight the possible bidding war that may ignite between the Red Sox and the Yankees when current Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer becomes a free agent in 2010.
The Yanks need to replace their aging catcher, 13-year veteran Jorge Posada. Last season, after shoulder surgery ended Posada's year, the team relied on Jose Molina and also brought in 17 year veteran and soon to be nursing-home resident, Ivan Rodriquez.
The results: Molina hit .216 and Rodriguez hit .219.
Likewise, the Red Sox also need to replace their aging catcher, team captain Jason Varitek. While he may still be an essential part of the clubhouse, Varitek's play has declined considerably. His offensive performance has plummeted (.220 BA since the 2007 All-Star break), and his ability to throw out runners is now mediocre at best.
The first point for any reader interested in this situation is: Who is Joe Mauer? And why would these two clubs want to fight for him?
Joe Mauer is a 25-year old catcher for the Minnesota Twins, who, after five years in the league, is just hitting his stride. He has by some accounts, the tools to become the best catcher in baseball...EVER.
Offensively, Mauer is clearly a top five catcher in the league. A career .317 hitter, last season he hit .328 and drove in 85 runs, claiming his second batting title in three years.
His .328 batting average was the highest of any catcher in the major leagues. Out of the 54 catchers in 2008 who caught more than 50 games, only five hit .300 or better. Among catchers, Mauer finished first in runs scored (98), first in hits (176), first in on-base percentage (.413), fourth in RBI (85), and fourth in at-bats (536).
Defensively, Mauer is just as stellar. In 2008 Mauer’s glove work earned him his first Gold Glove. His .997 fielding percentage was fourth among catchers who caught at least 50 games. Mauer was also in the top five in catching base runners, throwing out 36 percent (29 of 80) of attempted stolen bases.
Compare that stat with Jason Varitek, whose value is often touted based upon his defensive "abilities," who last season only threw out 22 percent (16 of 72) of base runners.
There is one concern though with Mauer: his history of injuries. Although appearing to be a young, solid athlete, Mauer has missed significant playing time due to injury twice so far in his short career. He missed most of his rookie season in 2004 with a knee injury, and missed 40 games in 2007 when he hit the disabled list with a strained left quadriceps. Mauer is also currently recovering from a minor surgical procedure he had a few weeks ago to eliminate a kidney obstruction he has had since childhood.
Despite the injuries, Mauer is clearly a great catcher who would be an impact player for either the Sox or Yankees. But before we can start the speculation, the next question remains: Will the Twins preempt any free-agency bidding and sign Mauer to a contract extension?
Mauer’s performance at the top of the catcher ranks dictates that he will get big money the next time he signs a contract.
So can the Twins afford an expensive multi-year deal? I know they would like to, especially given that the fans in Minnesota love him. Mauer is a hometown hero who grew up nearby and went to the same high school as Twins Hall of Famer Paul Molitor.
But in this economic downturn, depending upon how hard their ownership has been hit, the Twins simply may not be able to afford to keep their young team leader. Minnesota is a small budget team which in 2008 sported the fifth lowest salary in baseball ($57 million).
Compare this to the Yankees and their Major League-leading payroll of just under $210 million, who have continued their lavish spending this offseason, giving huge contracts to CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett, and Mark Teixiera.
In 2008 the Red Sox had the fourth largest payroll at $133 million. This offseason the team took an approach different than the Bronx Bombers and bolstered their roster in a parsimonious manner. The Sox signed veteran pitchers John Smoltz and Brad Penny, and outfielder Rocco Baldelli at Wal-Mart-like prices.
Looking forward, despite large contact extensions for Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia, the Red Sox appear to sit in the best position to outspend everyone including the Yankees to land someone like Mauer with a long-term contract.
This may explain why the Red Sox are not so interested right now in chasing available catchers like the Ranger’s Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Saltalamacchia, who batted .253 last season and .251 in 2007, would only serve as a modest improvement from Varitek and would come at a much higher cost.
In 2010, Joe Mauer will be a much better value dollar for dollar than someone like Saltalamacchia would be this year.
Will Mauer cost more? Absolutely. Will he be worth every penny? Absolutely.
So, in the next week, the Red Sox will most likely sign Jason Varitek to the bargain-basement $5 million contract they offered him, setting themselves up to stabilize the position long-term in the offseason by adding Joe Mauer.
Of course, the Sox could also potentially acquire Mauer via a midseason trade should the 2009 Twins not perform as expected in the AL Central. If this happens, Twins ownership may decide to offload Mauer and acquire the prospects they need to return to contention in 2010.
So Red Sox Nation, get ready for Theo Epstein and John Henry to possibly pull the trigger and finally outspend the Yankees on a player. In doing so they will signal the arrival of Boston's next great catcher, Joe Mauer.