There’s no question that Joe Mauer’s contract extension is good for Major League Baseball.
Rumors had been swirling for months that Mauer, the unquestioned best catcher in the game, would command more money than the Minnesota Twins could afford, and would inevitably be playing his home games in Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium by 2011.
The extension Mauer signed yesterday will keep him at Target Field through 2018. The deal is a slap in the face to George Steinbrenner & Co., and proof that small-market clubs can hold onto their hometown heroes.
Writers and analysts have been living in fear that Mauer would fall to the highest bidder next winter. They can now breathe easy.
But can Twins fans?
Before I go further, let me make it clear that I am in no way dismissing Mauer’s talent. I have no doubt that he is one of the greatest hitters of his generation, and I think the bigwigs in Cooperstown should start casting his Hall of Fame plaque now.
But there’s no denying that this extension carries a substantial amount of risk.
Unlike the Yankees, however, the Twins do not have the financial flexibility to survive a $23-million-a-year failure. The move to Target Field will improve the Twinkies’ economic standing, but the team will be sunk for nearly a decade if that much money is tied up in the next Jaret Wright or Carl Pavano.
Of course, Mauer has a more consistent track record than Wright and Pavano—but by how much?
He had a career year last season, setting new highs in batting average (.365) and home runs (28) en route to being named AL MVP. It seems unlikely that he can replicate that success.
The spike in his average was fueled by a ridiculous .373 BABIP (compared to a .344 career rate). The fact that he reached base more than ever while striking out more (12.0% whiff rate, compared to 9.3% in 2008) and walking less (12.5%, down from 13.3%) reveals that his average is in for a drop.
And what of the power surge, you ask...surely that’s sustainable?
Mauer posted a ridiculous 20.4% HR/FB ratio (higher than Albert Pujols and Jason Bay) in 2009—nearly twice his previous full-season high of 10.8%, and over triple the 6.5% mark he posted two years ago. It certainly isn’t out of the question that he was simply hitting the ball harder at age 26, but an increase that big probably isn’t going to last.
The Bill James, Marcel, CHONE, and ZIPS projections for Mauer’s prime age-27 season all agree with this assessment, foreseeing an average of a .333 BA with 19 dingers. Those are still excellent numbers for a catcher, but they would be a sizable drop-off from 2009.
That brings us to the next problem: Mauer’s place in the field.
Catcher is the most physically taxing position in the game, and there’s no way the Twins will let their best hitter kneel in the dirt for an hour-and-a-half every night when he’s 35.
In order to keep his bat booming through 2018, it’s only logical that the Twins will transition him to be their primary first baseman or designated hitter within the next few years.
The impact on Mauer’s value would be enormous. His 8.1 WAR last year ranked third among position players, behind only Ben Zobrist (8.6) and Albert Pujols (8.5). But if you isolate his offensive numbers and assign them to a player who splits his time evenly between first base and DH, his value plummets to 6.1 WAR.
That’s still an excellent figure, and it keeps him ahead of MVP competitors Miguel Cabrera (5.5) and Mark Teixeira (5.2), but he would rank behind fellow first basemen Pujols, Prince Fielder (6.8), and Adrian Gonzalez (6.4).
CHONE projects Mauer to be worth 7.3 wins in 2010. A similar positional adjustment drops that to 4.7—the same projection they give for Yunel Escobar.
Finally, Mauer is injury-prone. I remember watching him get carted off the field after busting his knee in the second MLB game of his career. He’s been plagued by back problems since 2007; his red-hot return in May 2009 made many people forget that he missed all of April.
The aforementioned move out from behind the plate would help keep him healthy, but isn’t $184 million a lot to invest in a player who probably owns a second house on the disabled list?
There is no question that Mauer is one of the best players in baseball. He has the kind of talent you’ll want to tell your kids about someday, and it gives me great pleasure to know that he will not be suiting up in pinstripes next spring.
But Twins fans, you might want to wait a couple years before you uncork the champagne.
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