Mauer’s future — not behind home plate
Joe C. offered his perspective on Joe Mauer’s 2010 season and it brought out the cyberthugs who launched into their accusations about Mauer’s lack of heart, soul and might. (Yes, I’m sampling some Old Testament verse. That’s Deuteronomy, Ch. 6, ft. the Lord.)
Look at the numbers and the level of sourness is unwarranted.
Watch the way that Josh Hamilton has recovered from his late season injuries and jealousy is understandable.
Mauer is going to be a Twin for the next eight years and — at this point — if you think that’s not a good thing, I think you’re very, very wrong.
That being said, 2011 is the time to begin transitioning him to another position. By the midpoint of his contract, he should no longer be catching.
As good a defensive catcher as Mauer is, the Twins didn’t sign him for $23 million per season because of his defensive skills. They signed him for his batting prowess, which would be considered extraordinary under any circumstances and has been otherworldly because of the numbers he’s compiled while catching.
Keep in mind that his contract was enhanced by a few million per year based on his off-the-charts 2009 numbers. As cordial looking as those negotiations appeared last winter, if the Twins hadn’t shown Mauer the money, we’d be preparing to watch a free-agent frenzy play out and the population would be outraged. Bet on it.
That Mauer got hot at the right time and forced the Pohlads to dig deeper into their vault bothers me not one bit. If Mauer’s contract causes the Twins to do business differently (read: more cheaply), it will be because the Pohlads will have changed their operating philosophy and that would be shameful.
OK, enough preamble.
In seven seasons with the Twins, Mauer has been significantly hampered by injuries in four of them. He missed almost his entire rookie season in 2004 with knee injuries, a month in the ‘07 and ‘09 seasons and chunks of this season despite the fact that he didn’t go on the disabled list. He was sidelined enough last season that he actually had 22 fewer plate appearances in 2010 than he did in ‘09.
That track record is enough evidence for me that the Twins can expect more of the same — if not even more problems — as Mauer gets older.
In addition, his career month-by-month regular-season statistics show a significant decline in September/October in on base-plus-slugging percentage (.846) compared with any month from May through August (.880 to .959 for those four months). I’ll use that as evidence that the demands of catching wear him down when the Twins need him most. A statistic wrinkle here is that his 2009 September was excellent (.958 OPS), but because he missed the first month of the season (as well as spring training), that was still “August” on Mauer’s baseball calendar.
And if you want to accuse me of cherry-picking a statistic, I’ll counter that OPS is disproportionately significant for the third batter in your order.
I want Mauer playing 155 games per season, not 135.
I don’t want Mauer to be durable by catching standards; I want 700 plate appearances every season without him wearing down more than other players.
I want to see Mauer be like Josh Hamilton in the postseason, not Nick Punto. (Mauer in the postseason: .286/.359/.314; Punto in the postseason: .286/.375/.333.)
And this winter — when the Twins are facing a combination of interesting roster decisions and uncertainty — is prime time for the hard discussions to take place and the options to be vetted. If you want to lose sleep over the second-base situation, that’s your option. But that’s way down on my list.
A few options, in quick-hit form:
*If the Twins are as (privately) pessimistic about Justin Morneau as I am, Mauer and Michael Cuddyer would make a fine first-base share for 2011. Cuddyer would be a better trade candidate if he wasn’t making $10.5 million in 2011, but that’s another story. Have Mauer catch 90 games and play first base in 60.
*Corner outfield. That would have to be part of an overall outfield overhaul. If a Delmon Young/ Jason Kubel combo is in left field and Mauer in right, the Twins would have to expect significant defensive improvement from Denard Span (unlikely) or get a center fielder who can truly run the outfield and make up for the shortcoming/inexperience in the corner outfield positions.
*Third base. That’s if Danny Valencia isn’t nearly as good over time as his excellent half-season. If Valencia levels off to a .275 hitter with a .325 OBP and 12 to 15 home runs, is that good enough for the future?
Of those three options, I hope I’m wrong about No. 1 and that Valencia answers No. 3 with continued solid play. That leaves No. 2 as the most likely outcome, and will require some additional moves to go with it.
Tough choices, but that’s the price of the confluence of success and questions that are the story of the Twins today.
I want to see Mauer batting third and playing regularly when he’s 40.
I want to see his 3,000th hit … and his 3,500th hit.
I want to see Mauer in the second car (behind the manager) in a World Series parade or three over the next few years.
I want the Twins to figure out the Mauer issue as they figure out the other puzzle pieces they need to transcend the divide from winners of a weak division to World Series contender.
I want, I want, I want.
But I’m not wanting anything unreasonable.