Joe Mauer’s New Contract
Yesterday, the Twins signed Joe Mauer to an 8-year, $184 million extension. It is rare to watch your favorite team lock up its best player long-term and have mixed emotions, but that is how this contract makes me feel. Let me try to elaborate on my mixed feelings in order to sort this out for my own self. Hopefully, someone else can find the discussion at least vaguely illuminating as well.
First, if any player is worth being paid $23 million, it is the reigning MVP. Last year, Mauer won his third batting title, giving him as many as every other catcher in major league history combined. He also cruised to the AL MVP, picking up all but one vote. He led the Twins to the postseason, despite missing a month of the season himself and the Twins’ second best player, Justin Morneau, missing the month of September. Fangraphs credited Mauer with 8.1 WAR last season, and their measure does not include catching defense. They almost certainly undervalued his season, and they convert his WAR into approximately $36.6 million dollars of value. His 2008 was also excellent, as he won the batting title and produced 5.8 WAR ($26 million). Those sort of numbers make $23 million a year seem downright reasonable.
Second, Mauer is a Minnesota native. Being from St. Paul, he was a locally popular first overall draft choice in 2001. He is already a legend in the area, by far the Twins most popular player since Kirby Puckett. Mauer’s presence on the Twins sells tickets, even if he wasn’t as outstanding a player as he is. In this sense, Mauer is worth more than just his onfield performance to the Twins organization.
Third, Mauer is only 26 right now. At that age, his prime might still be ahead of him. Players tend to peak around age 27-29, and Mauer is one of the best players in all of baseball before he reaches what are usually players best years. Huge free agent contracts are often inflated by being based on past performance more than future results. At Mauer’s age, that problem is not as severe as it otherwise could be.
Fourth, Mauer is injury prone. Catchers already play less games than most position players, and Mauer is not at the high-end of catchers. Consider his games played in his 5 full seasons as a major leaguer: 131, 140, 109, 146, 138. The three years in which he played more than 132 games, he won a batting title and was in MVP contention. But for a player going into his seventh season, it is worrisome to look at only two seasons over the 140-game mark. Cal Ripken he clearly is not. At this same point in Mike Piazza‘s career, following the 1998 season, he had topped 140 games 4 times, and he missed it twice due to the 1994-95 strike. Ivan Rodriguez had only topped 140 games twice, like Mauer, but he also had two seasons caught up in the strike and his two big seasons topped the 150 game mark. Neither of those players lost much time to injury, and it is tough to see how a catcher much worse than them can be worth $23 million a year.
Is Joe Mauer worth it? Probably not. Given his struggles with injury, the quick dropoffs of most catchers, and the length of the contract, it is tough to imagine him living up to the money being paid. However, this contract is the Twins best chance to win in the next couple of seasons. Paying Mauer big money when he is 35 is much more palatable if he led the Twins to the World Series at age 28. It is certainly more palatable that watching him lead the Yankees to the World Series at 29.