Will Joe Mauer's Offensive Ceiling at First Base Justify His Massive Contract?

Joe Giglio@@JoeGiglioSportsContributor INovember 11, 2013

Last week, Minnesota's Joe Mauer was honored with his fifth career Silver Slugger Award at the catching position. After Monday's announcement by the Minnesota Twins, it will be his last.

The veteran catcher is officially becoming a full-time first baseman in 2014 after consulting with doctors about the long-term injury risk that would accompany staying behind the plate during the latter half of his career. 

As the team stated, Mauer won the 2013 Silver Slugger at catcher despite not playing a game after Aug. 19 due to a concussion. Per the Twins' news release, via the Star Tribune:

The Minnesota Twins announced today that they will move All-Star catcher Joe Mauer from behind the plate to first base in 2014. After consultation with doctors from Mayo Clinic and team doctors, and given the inherent risks of future injury at the catcher position, the organization and Joe determined that it would be in the best interest of both him and the Twins for a position change.

The 2013 American League Silver Slugger batted .324 with 11 home runs and 47 RBI in 113 games last season, but suffered a concussion on a foul tip off his mask on August 19. He was placed on the 7-day concussion disabled list on August 20 and did not return to action the remainder of the season.

Mauer is now symptom free from the concussion and beginning his regular off-season workouts with no restrictions. He has played 56 career games at first base committing just four errors in 536 total chances for a .993 fielding percentage. Mauer has caught in 920 games and earned three Rawlings Gold Glove Awards at catcher (2008-10). He was named American League MVP while winning his third batting title in 2009 and has made six trips to the All-Star Game, four as the American League’s starting catcher.

At age 30, this is the right time for the Twins and Mauer to reassess his position and future in order to help the organization find its way on the path back to contention before the All-Star reaches the declining stage of his career.

Mauer had plenty of interesting comments on the situation after it became official (h/t to Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com):

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Heading into 2014, Mauer has five years and $115 million left on the eight-year, $184 million contract he signed prior to the 2011 season. In order for Mauer to justify the long and expensive commitment from Minnesota's ownership group, he must continue to hit like a future Cooperstown-bound star.

Of course, the offensive expectations at first base are markedly different than those at catcher.

In 2013, the average catcher posted a slash line well below what the average first baseman produced. When the average catcher posts a .696 OPS, Mauer's ability to rake from behind the plate stands out. Now, he'll join a group of first basemen who are in a different offensive class than his former catching brethren.

2013 Offensive Output
StatAverage CatcherAverage First BasemanJoe Mauer

With the next phase of Mauer's sterling career set to begin, his offensive genius is enough to justify a move to first base, but don't expect a career transformation from the Minnesota star. In other words, moving 90 feet down the first base line on defense won't suddenly make him a 30-homer hitter in 2014. 

The ability to reach base, rack up hits and bring one of the sweetest left-handed strokes in history to the ballpark each night will remain. A character transformation won't accompany the move, but it doesn't have to in order for this player to justify the contract.

In many ways, Joe Mauer is similar to former Red Sox, Yankees and Rays hitting machine Wade Boggs. Although his ability to reach base at an outstanding clip wasn't appreciated during his prime, Boggs' approach at the plate, career average and success at third base landed him in Cooperstown. 

Mauer vs. Boggs: Unconventional Superstars
PlayerAVGOBPSLGOPSHits per 162 Games2B per 162 Games

Despite playing a "power position" during the same era as 500-plus home run slugger Mike Schmidt, Boggs etched out his own legacy at the hot corner. Decades later, Mauer will be playing first base in the same division as Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera. The former is a 29-year-old first baseman on the path to 400-plus career home runs. The latter, a former first baseman, is carving out a legacy as one of the fiercest sluggers in the history of the sport.

Mauer can continue to provide the Twins organization with value by simply being himself at the plate. If the former first overall pick can stay on the path to 3,000 career hits, keep an on-base percentage above .400 and hold a .935 OPS with RISP, his bat will be lauded, not critiqued.

Of course, some fans will hope for a repeat of his 2009 MVP form. In a year that looks exceedingly like an aberration, Mauer crushed 28 home runs, slugged more than 1.000 and posted the fourth-highest adjusted OPS from a catcher in history. Even if those numbers were achieved while playing first base, they would rank alongside Miguel Cabrera's 2011 and Albert Pujols' 2005 in the history of hitting greatness by first basemen.

Since 2010, however, Mauer has fallen back to the career norms he established prior to 2009. If he produces another season like 2010, it will likely be a one- or two-year spurt of power, not a trend showing a move to full-time slugger status.

ESPN's Mark Simon wondered how a move away from the offensive array of catching colleagues in baseball would affect Mauer's WAR. Undoubtedly, it will have an impact due to the chart above. If Mauer remains the hitter he's established himself to be over the last decade, he won't be leaps and bounds better than the average offensive first baseman the way he was over the average catcher.

Of course, more playing time will change the equation. 

Over the last five seasons, Mauer has averaged 123 games per year. Effectively, the full-time catcher lost 40 or so games each season due to injury or days needed for rest. If the team can reduce that number to 15 or less games missed per season, Mauer's ability to rack up total bases, runs and produce offense for Minnesota will be enhanced.

What the Twins are giving up by removing their advantage behind the plate can be negated by having one of the game's greatest hitters in the lineup every single day. 

Sometime around 2028, Cooperstown will invite Mauer in for an induction ceremony. Before this announcement, he would have been introduced as one of the greatest hitting catchers of all time, if not the greatest. 

Now, he'll just have to settle for being called one of the greatest hitters of all time.

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