Joe Mauer’s Contract with the Twins is never going to look foolish
The Minnesota Twins made a single mistake when they extended C Joe Mauer before the 2010 season. They negotiated with a superstar following a career year, when his value was at its highest. Heading into a contract year, the Twins didn’t have the luxury of time on their side, but they also didn’t have to hit an arbitrary deadline set by the Mauer camp anyway, seeing as they were going to have to pay retail price for Mauer.
Sure, there is a legitimate fear to be had that the Yankees or someone might have outbid the whole market when Mauer reached free agency, but if the Twins were willing to go to $23 million annually, Mauer was going to stay in Minnesota. They probably didn’t have to go to $23 million if they had waited.
Beyond the timing of the deal being on the player’s terms, the Twins and their fans have plenty to worry about regarding Mauer’s future with the team. With the first two years of the contract in the books, the Twins have six years and $138 million remaining on the Mauer deal.
And the best part for the Twins is: every one of baseball’s 30 teams would take that contract.
Of course, that’s only partially true. Young players under team control will always be the most valuable assets in baseball, so the Royals wouldn’t trade Salvador Perez straight up for Mauer’s contract. The Giants won’t be dealing Buster Posey for him. I doubt the Orioles would trade Matt Wieters for him. I’m not sure the Cardinals would trade Yadi Molina either. I’m certain the Nats wouldn’t trade Wilson Ramos (ironically) Mauer’s former backup And then there are the teams who can’t get out of contracts with their current catchers like Atlanta and Brian McCann.
But in the abstract, no team would be unhappy with Mauer at 6/138. It’s sure a lot less scary than Mauer at 8/184.
Mauer is going to turn 30 in April. The contract will take the Twins through Mauer’s age 35 season. These are Mauer’s decline years.
But will it matter? Mauer was worth 5 wins above replacement in 2012, and has settled in as a .370 wOBA catcher, averaging just a tick under .400 in on-base percentage since signing the deal. He rebounded from an off year with the bat in 2011. Mauer isn’t going to be an elite player for the duration of the contract, but elite players are more or less locks to outperform what they are being paid anyway: there is literally no replacement for elite performance in the sports world.
But the fear about Mauer is that he’s a catcher that has already spent time on the disabled list. What is going to happen to the value of his contract when he has to move off catcher and over to first base because he simply cannot stay healthy over a long season while catching games anymore?
The response to such an argument is two fold:
1) the assumption that this event is in the near term future is an exaggeration; and,
2) the argument that first base is the only place that Mauer can go post-catching days is a faulty one.
The reason Mauer is seeing time at first base now is because he’s a full time catcher with a great bat, and first base is sort of a natural position for a catcher to learn with limited practice time. But if and when Mauer has to move off catcher prior to the conclusion of his monster contract, he won’t immediately go to first base: Mauer could theoretically learn to play any of the four corners given a full offseason, including third base.
The other thing is that Mauer should be able to stay a mostly full time catcher (and part time DH) through his age 33 or 34 season. To make a point, Derek Jeter and Miguel Tejada are both turning 39 this year, and neither has been asked to move officially off of shortstop yet. Tejada’s offense has been in full and utter decline for a decade, but he can still handle the rigors of his position defensively. Omar Vizquel was playing shortstop through his age 44 season. Tall catchers are probably a little bit different, but Mauer is going to decline offensively prior to being asked to switch positions to preserve the end of his career.
The fact remains that the Twins are going to remain open to evaluating his best position on a year to year basis to get the most out of the contract, something Wins above Replacement does a poor job of capturing. Mauer is also still a very strong defensive catcher, and this suggests he’s not in immediate danger of suddenly not being the top defensive catcher on the Twins.
But lets be very respectful to typical age-related decline and say that Mauer has to spend the last 3 years of the contract at another position to avoid frequent DL trips. According to this exercise, the final $69 million of Mauer’s contract will depend on his ability to produce at another position. If we build in roughly .375 WAR/year decline to his performance — an estimate that builds in the Twins ability to switch Mauer’s position in order to avoid injuries — the Twins have to get roughly 3.6 WAR, 3.25 WAR, and 2.9 WAR from Mauer in the final three years of the deal in order to break even on the contract value.
Here are some 3 1/4 win players from the 2012 season who played corner positions (1B, 3B, LF, RF) on the diamond: DH Billy Butler (Royals), OF Yoenis Cespedes (Athletics), Allen Craig (Cardinals), Hanley Ramirez (Dodgers), and Andre Ethier (Dodgers). Those players are all younger than 30, sure, but is there any doubt that a mid-thirties Mauer in full decline could be someone like Adam LaRoche, or at least Mark Teixiera? Because unlike those two players, Mauer can perform at positions that aren’t first base, which will save his value as far as WAR is concerned.
And that’s a worst case scenario, beyond one where chronic knee or back injuries hamper his thirties.
Obviously with any long term contract, there’s built in risk that the player may get hurt and not produce. This applies to Mauer as well as any other veteran on a long term contract. That doesn’t mean that guaranteed multi-year contracts are a bad idea, it means that contracts are speculative and based on risk tolerance.
It doesn’t mean that every long term superstar contract looks good in hindsight (see: Rodriguez, Alex). It just means that every team in the league with even a modicrum of risk tolerance — small-market and big market alike — would absorb the Joe Mauer contract for the next six years, all else equal.