The Case for the Joe Mauer Contract

(photo credit: Brian Curski, Cumulus Media)

I wanted to stay in a Twins uniform, and I want to win. And we’re definitely headed in the right direction.
— Joe Mauer after signing an eight-year, $184 million contract in 2010

All of the vitriol aimed at Joe Mauer right now would have been directed, ten-fold, at Twins management if they had not retained him in 2010. Minnesota had just opened a new publicly-subsidized park, they were coming off a year in which they had won the AL Central and Mauer was named MVP. He was an anomaly: a defensively-sound catcher and a batting champ.

It would have been hypocritical for an organization to say that they need a new ballpark to retain the players that they developed, while on the other hand letting their best prospect in years, a St. Paul native, sign with an East Coast team, just as Chuck Knoblauch, Johan Santana and David Ortiz had before him.

It’s worth putting all this into perspective five years later when Mauer, now a first baseman, is the most important topic heading into this year’s offseason. The hometown hero became the local scapegoat after suffering bilateral leg weakness in 2011, presumably from years of catching behind the plate, and a career-altering concussion in late 2013. He was an All-Star catcher then, hitting .324/.404/.476 at the time of the injury. Now he’s a light-hitting first baseman.

Lost in the howling about Mauer is that the Twins essentially wasted his prime years, at least the part of it in which he was under the mammoth contract, by putting a Triple-A caliber roster around him. Following the 94-win season in the first year at Target Field, which resulted in yet another sweep at the hand of the New York Yankees in the ALDS, there was a mass exodus of talent: Michael Cuddyer, Denard Span, Francisco Liriano and even Mauer’s best buddy, Justin Morneau, all left during the bleak years.

Poor management contributed greatly to the team’s streak of four 90-loss seasons. Wilson Ramos, a young catcher that the team could use right now, was famously dealt for inept closer Matt Capps. J.J. Hardy was offloaded for two minor league pitchers that never surfaced, leaving a gaping hole at shortstop. There was the failed Tsuyoshi Nishioka experiment, and the jury is still out on the Denard Span trade, as one-time blue-chip starting prospect Alex Meyer struggled this season and was moved to the bullpen.

Mauer was criticized in his catching days for not hitting for enough power, but in an age where on-base percentage is properly coveted, having a catcher that reached base 40 percent of the time was worth every penny: he sold jerseys, he didn’t have off-the-field issues and the worst anyone could say about him is that he was boring. In many ways, in 2012 and 2013, he was one of the only reasons to come to Target Field.

Things changed for the better, of course, last season, and suddenly Mauer has gotten lost in the mix. In fact, if it were not for his $23 million salary, he probably wouldn’t even be part of the conversation when it came to the Twins. He isn’t a vocal member of the locker room, at least when it comes to the media. His .265/.338/.380 line is rather pedestrian for a first baseman. He isn’t young and full of potential like Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario or Byron Buxton. He didn’t fill a major team need in the second half of the season like Eduardo Escobar. And he doesn’t have the personality and charm of Torii Hunter or Brian Dozier.

He also isn’t as detrimental to the team as he’s made out to be. While he was greatly overpaid for his production over the past two seasons, the Twins are getting players like Sano, Buxton and Rosario on the cheap — just like they did with Mauer before his big contract. And that’s the point of retaining homegrown talent. It’s not like the Ervin Santana or Ricky Nolasco deal where they spent their young and cheap years with other teams. The Twins got value for Mauer at one point. The question is if, over the course of his time in Minnesota, it will all even out.

The draft-and-development system works, in theory, as long as a team doesn’t do what the Twins did in the Metrodome years: develop players for bigger-market clubs. Some contracts will pan out, and others will not. Context is always lost in these situations, and it’s important to remember that Mauer’s contract is not unique in Major League Baseball. In fact, in order to build a championship team, clubs must take measured risk with players in their prime.

In August of this year, ESPN created a list of the ten worst contracts in baseball (Insider required). Mauer was listed at No. 9 behind the likes of CC Sabathia, Robinson Cano, Matt Kemp and Albert Pujols. Two teams had two players ahead of him: the Detroit Tigers (Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera) and the Texas Rangers (Prince Fielder, Shin-Soo Choo).

Mauer is in no way preventing the Twins from spending. Phil Hughes is on a five-year, $58 million deal (with extension). Santana was signed for four years, $55 million in the offseason. Nolasco is halfway through a four-year, $49 million pact. Glen Perkins and Brian Dozier, the team’s two All Stars this year, are homegrown players that were retained. And even with all those contracts, Minnesota opened the year with a $108.95 million payroll, 18th in the league behind teams like the Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals and Cincinnati Reds.

Twins GM Terry Ryan insists that payroll will not be an issue in the offseason, and is quick to point out that the Pittsburgh Pirates, who won 98 games this year, opened the year with a $88.28 million payroll — the sixth-lowest in major league baseball. Granted, Pittsburgh will have to spend more if they want to retain their best players, but it also is worth noting that three of the five teams with the highest payrolls — the Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers and San Francisco Giants — didn’t make the playoffs this season, and the Yankees, No. 2 in spending behind the Los Angeles Dodgers, were eliminated in a one-game playoff by the Houston Astros (No. 29, $70.91 million).

Payroll isn’t everything, but it is an important component of the Mauer conversation. First of all, while signing him was a no-brainer in 2010, it goes without saying that they would not offer him a three-year, $69 million extension if his contract would have expired this year. But that is neither here nor there: Players are signed for what they are worth at the time that they hit free agency, and the same logic applies to their up-and-coming players right now.

Sano will eventually have to get signed, as will Buxton, Rosario, Aaron Hicks, Kyle Gibson and Trevor May. Sano could become a $300 million player. Buxton could command nine figures. Rosario, Hicks, Gibson and May probably won’t be as expensive, but they will ask for much more than what they are making on their roughly $500,000 contracts right now. And that’s not including other young players like Meyer, Kennys Vargas or Danny Santana if they can get their careers turned around. Some of these contracts will work out; some won’t. Still, it’s a risk worth taking to keep the best homegrown talent on the roster, and most of them will be signed when Mauer is off the books.

It is better that the Twins have a few overpaid players, in addition to the young stars they have, than it is for Minnesota to operate under the old model where they developed players for other teams. Keeping talent in-house is key, especially when things tend to even out over the course of a player’s career. The methodology behind the Mauer contract was right, but the bottom line is he suffered a concussion, a major brain injury, and it altered the trajectory of his career.

Ryan stopped short of saying that Mauer could become a batting champion again, but claimed that he is capable of hitting .300 next season. Given that batters tend to have a larger shelf life than pitchers, and knowing the effort that Mauer puts into his craft on a daily basis, counting out a resurgence in the upcoming years would be foolish even with his recent struggles.

In the same breath, Mauer has to offer more than he is right now. He may never become a power hitter, but advanced metrics have revealed that a player that can get on base 40 percent of the time, as Mauer once did, is immensely valuable to the success of a baseball team — especially one with players like Buxton and Hicks setting the table for him, and Sano and Rosario hitting behind him. Players that, like Mauer, will become very expensive one day.

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(photo credit: Brian Curski, Cumulus Media)

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