Why Joe Mauer on Waivers Could Foreshadow a Huge Winter Blockbuster

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Why Joe Mauer on Waivers Could Foreshadow a Huge Winter Blockbuster
Brace Hemmelgarn-US PRESSWIRE
Are the Twins putting Joe Mauer on the trade block?

The Minnesota Twins caused a bit of a stir by putting Joe Mauer on waivers Tuesday. 

Calling someone "the face of a franchise" has become something of a cliche, especially in baseball, but the term truly seems to apply to Mauer and the Twins. Mauer is a hometown kid, born and raised in St. Paul, Minn., selected No. 1 overall by Minnesota in the 2001 amateur draft.

Just 29 years old, Mauer is still in his prime and plays one of the most difficult positions to fill in baseball. Finding a starting catcher who can hit and field at an All-Star level is gold in MLB. So why exactly would the Twins put such a valued commodity on waivers, making him available to be picked up by any team? Would Minnesota really consider letting Mauer go or trading him?

First, it should be pointed out that Mauer did clear waivers as of Aug. 29. Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal tweeted that information Wednesday afternoon around 4 p.m. ET, adding that the Twins now have until midnight Aug. 31 to trade him to any team that wants him on its postseason roster.

Trading Mauer wouldn't be that simple, however. He has a full no-trade clause in his contract and thus would have to approve any deal the Twins might be interested in making. Mauer is also due to be paid $23 million per season through 2018. That equals a $138 million salary load that an interested team would have to take on. (You can view the details of Mauer's agreement at Cot's Baseball Contracts.)

According to Rosenthal, Mauer actually has $142.1 million left on his contract, including his remaining salary for this season. Normally, moving that kind of money would be deemed nearly impossible, but the definition of that word in regards to waivers and trades has been completely blown up in recent days by the Los Angeles Dodgers and Boston Red Sox

 

Why the Red Sox?

Elsa/Getty Images
Are Ben Cherington and Bobby Valentine interested in bringing Joe Mauer to Boston?

One indication of that was the immediate shooting down of rumors that the Red Sox might be interested in claiming Mauer off waivers and trying to work out a trade with the Twins. Boston just cleared $260 million off its future payroll and might be looking to spend some of that money on a tough position to fill.

Even with Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Ryan Lavarnway already on hand, Mauer would be a significant upgrade. (One of those players could go to Minnesota in return.) As Rosenthal points out, he could also fill in at first base and designated hitter, providing versatility that the Red Sox coveted in Victor Martinez before he left as a free agent in 2010. 

Boston general manager Ben Cherington might not want to take on that kind of money after freeing up his payroll so recently. The Red Sox have more pressing needs—outfield, first base, starting pitcher, reliever—to fill with their newly available payroll.

Yet not having to worry about finding a catcher for the next six years would surely be appealing. That's assuming, of course, that Mauer stays at catcher through the duration of his contract.

 

Everyone Goes on Waivers

It's natural to get excited when seeing that a big name has been placed on waivers. The possibility of a star player getting moved to a playoff contender causes a bunch of uproar. That frenzy is probably more justifiable than ever in light of recent events. 

But for the most part, teams putting their high-priced players on waivers is a formality. Superstars are put out there because you just never know what might happen, as we saw with Adrian Gonzalez and the Dodgers. However, for most general managers, this is a preliminary move, perhaps to get an idea of what to plan for in the offseason.

Scott A. Schneider/Getty Images
Could Terry Ryan trade Joe Mauer for prospects as he did with Johan Santana?

"Even Albert Pujols and guys like that get run through waivers," former Toronto Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi told Sports Illustrated in 2010. "You find out who has interest in players."

Though a team may not have any intention of trading a star player in August, a waiver claim very easily allows GMs to gauge the interest of a potential trading partner.

So maybe that's what the Twins were thinking by putting Mauer on waivers. Who might claim him? Which team might be worth pursuing a deal with during the winter? Perhaps Minnesota was trying to gauge the Red Sox's interest in their star catcher. Unfortunately, they probably don't have much of a better idea now than they did 48 hours ago. 

For more on how the waiver process works, please check out this excellent explanation by B/R's Doug Mead.

 

Chance to Clear Payroll

As inexplicable as it might seem, perhaps Twins GM Terry Ryan was hoping for an opportunity to shed the $140 million owed to Mauer off the team's payroll before next season. The Twins are in the upper-half of team salaries this year at approximately $94 million

With the new Target Field, Minnesota is drawing fans despite the team's last-place standing in the AL Central and the worst record in the American League. According to ESPN, the Twins rank 11th in attendance this season, drawing over 2.2 million fans thus far. 

Taking those added revenues into consideration, it doesn't seem likely that the Twins are concerned about shedding payroll. As with the Red Sox, perhaps Ryan is interested in creating some more flexibility in his budget. Needless to say, Mauer's annual $23 million salary could be used to fill several different holes on the roster. The Twins need help in the middle infield and starting rotation. 

Of course, trading Mauer would presumably also bring a good package of minor league prospects in return. And those players could be used to address roster needs as well. 

 

Catching is a Grind

After appearing in only 82 games last year, the Twins may have had some doubts about Mauer's durability for a full season. Perhaps he was wearing down after averaging 120 games behind the plate during the past three years.

Mauer has likely addressed those questions having played in 120 games so far this season. According to Baseball-Reference.com, he's played 62 games at catcher (starting 60 of them). The Twins have tried to save Mauer's legs and keep him fresh by playing him at first base for 25 games, and 32 at DH.

Jason Miller/Getty Images
Can Joe Mauer keep playing 120 games per season at catcher?

As a result, Mauer has had a stronger season with the bat, hitting .309/.403/.425 with 26 doubles, eight home runs and 66 RBI—excellent numbers for a catcher. So if Mauer can maintain that level of performance, the Twins will surely be happy with that. 

But what if Mauer's future isn't at catcher? Could he move to first base after Justin Morneau's contract expires following the 2013 season? If so, Mauer's numbers are a bit lackluster at first base. Though Mauer would provide a strong batting average, teams prefer more power from first, especially considering they probably won't get much offensive production from catcher. 

Do the Twins have doubts about Mauer's ability to continue playing catcher at a high level? If so, that might explain why they put him on waivers. At the very least, Minnesota could use his salary to bring in another first baseman and a defensive specialist at catcher. 

 

Losing in the Future

The Twins are on their way to a second consecutive last-place finish in the AL Central. With a middle-of-the-pack minor league system (Fangraphs ranks Minnesota No. 15), help doesn't appear to be on the way any time soon.  Minnesota could bring in some free agents with its increased revenues. But how many players would have to be signed to make a difference?

The Twins made one of the better moves of the offseason in signing Josh Willingham to a three-year, $21 million contract. Even with him, however, the Twins are a fifth-place team. With two years remaining on his deal at the bargain price of $7 million per season, Minnesota is better off trading him for prospects. 

Tim Heitman-US PRESSWIRE
Could Joe Mauer finish his career with another team?

With six years remaining on his contract and turning 30 next year, how much more losing is Mauer willing to endure? Surely, he'd enjoy leading a turnaround and being a part of the next great Twins team.

But how soon does Mauer see that happening in Minnesota? Might he prefer to be on a team closer to winning a championship in the next couple of seasons? In his report, Ken Rosenthal mentioned that Mauer sought an opt-out clause in his contract, but didn't get one. Did that tip off his desire to move on if things went downhill with the Twins?

So do we have the makings of a possible trade involving Mauer during the offseason? Between the Twins and Mauer, which side might want to arrange a separation more? Are the Red Sox indeed interested in trading for Mauer, but later rather than now? How much of a trade market beyond Boston could there be for him?

Mauer and the Twins could be the team to watch this winter.

 

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