How Joe Mauer Contract Talks Could Put the Twins in a Perilous Situation

Dan WadeSenior Analyst IMay 13, 2009

FORT MYERS, FL - FEBRUARY 23: Joe Mauer #7 of the Minnesota Twins poses during photo day at the Twins spring training complex on February 23, 2008 in Fort Myers, Florida. (Photo by Rob Tringali/Getty Images)

In Tuesday night's 6-2 win over the Detroit Tigers, the Minnesota Twins got the kind of offensive boost from their catcher most teams only dream of.

Joe Mauer went 2-for-3 at the plate with a run scored and two driven in, all while guiding Kevin Slowey through six innings of one-run ball, netting him his fifth win of the young season.

The aberration in Mauer's performance was the way he drove in his runs: He crushed his fourth home run of the season after getting a home run taken away by Clete Thomas the previous at-bat.

Mauer has hit more than 10 home runs just once in his career, and he hit his fourth home run on July 5 last year, nearly two months and 240 ABs later than this season.

This is great for the Twins, who have lacked a serious power threat outside of Justin Morneau over the last few seasons, save one thing.

This development, if it lasts all season, grossly complicates Mauer's impending contract negotiations.

This was always going to be a long, hard process; Joe Mauer is a hard talent to pin down.

Yes, he is already one of the best catchers to play the game (and has not yet truly hit his peak; he's just 26), but he's missed major sections of three seasons, including the first month of 2009.

If Mauer remains a catcher, he will command a contract unlike any the Twins have seen before. It is worth noting, however, that this does not mean Mauer is gone. The Twins signed Kirby Puckett to the largest contract in baseball at the time, and Jim Pohlad seems at least marginally more willing to spend more money than his father did.

Mauer's value is substantially higher as a catcher than as a third baseman or left fielder, which have been his rumored positions of choice should he be forced out from behind the plate.

Sure, that means the Twins will have to pay more for his services, but it also means that they have an elite catcher rather than a very good infielder.

If Mauer becomes a 25 to 30 home run threat, his position change becomes essentially irrelevant. Such numbers would put him in the same category as a game-changing hitter like Albert Pujols, who signed a seven-year contract worth $100 million in 2004 at a defensively negligible position.

Imagine the value of a catcher who could hit with the best of the first basemen. How do you begin to draw up that deal?

Lest this exercise delve too deeply in the hypothetical realm, consider this: Assuming 500 PAs, Joe Mauer is on pace for over 45 home runs. Yes, he won't reach that plateau, but knowing that, does 25 seem so unreasonable?

This all leaves the Twins in a precarious position. If they sign Mauer now, they will end up paying based on his perceived value as a catcher, when he may switch to a less integral position over the course of the contract.

However, if they wait, and Mauer continues to put up power numbers in addition to his normal production, they may be forced to designate a massive chunk of payroll to a single player, which they have loathed to do in the past.

Add in the fact that Mauer is a hometown favorite (read: PR backlash) and that the Twins are opening a taxpayer-funded stadium next season (read: If Mauer leaves, Target Field will be torn to the ground by an angry mob), and the Twins really are over a barrel.

While the Twins will never bemoan the fact that their catcher has the same number of home runs as Matt Holiday and Brian Roberts in one-third the number of ABs, it really does create a problem for them.

At this point, even with the injury risk, the Twins need to be strongly considering locking Mauer up for a long time. The odds are simply better that his value will increase substantially rather than decrease or even stay the same.