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Monday, March 22, 2010

More Power to Mauer

The Twins, as many expected, managed to get Joe Mauer signed to a long-term deal in time for the opening of Target Field.  The eight-year, $184 Million contract is easily the largest ever signed by a catcher, and in terms of average annual value, only A-Rod has made more in a multi-year deal (Roger Clemens famously signed a one-year, $28 Million deal with the Yankees in 2007).

Odd as it may be to say this about a contract this size, Joe Mauer clearly gave the Twins a sizable hometown discount, as many speculated that he could get as much as $25 Million/year on the open market, perhaps for as many as ten years.  If the Yankees, Red Sox, or Mets had handed him a ten-year, $250 Million deal in 2011, few would've been surprised.  Mauer clearly genuinely wanted to play for his hometown team throughout the prime of his career and that is certainly commendable.

The questions for the Twins are now twofold.  How much revenue will the new ballpark, combined with this good publicity, generate in 2010 and beyond?  And, can they keep Mauer healthy and productive into his mid-thirties?

The Twins are banking, literally, on a dramatic increase in revenues, as their payroll for this year is already almost $30 Million bigger than it was in 2009, and $23 Million larger than it's ever been in the history of the franchise.  Their primary thumpers, Mauer and Justin Morneau, are under contract until at least 2013 (after which Morneau's contract expires), and the Twins also locked up Scott Baker, Denard Span, and Nick Blackburn through their arbitration years.

The team will still be facing a lot of tough contract decisions in the coming offseasons.  Orlando Hudson, Carl Pavano, Jim Thome, and Jon Rauch each have one-year deals.  Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, and Nick Punto all have contracts which include sizable options for 2011.  Those could be tough decisions, depending upon how they produce in 2010.  Joe Nathan has a $12.5 Million option for 2012, which is among the several reasons he needed to get Tommy John surgery out of the way now.  Minnesota appears to have no long-term plan at second or third base, so they may need to solidify their infield via the free agent market if they hope to remain competitive.

Unfortunately, the history of mid-market teams and $100 Million contracts does not include a lot of success stories.  A-Rod's first massive contract, signed with the Rangers, pushed their payroll into the stratosphere, but actually cost the team competitively.  In the three year prior to A-Rod's arrival, the Rangers averaged 87 wins a season, in the three years A-Rod was in Texas they averaged 72 wins a season, despite that face that in '02 and '03 the Rangers payroll was almost twice as high as any time before or since.

The Rockies experimented with the hundred-million dollar man via Todd Helton and Mike Hampton.  They have been quite successful in the waning years of the Helton deal, partially because Todd took a significant chunk of deferred money, but it shouldn't go unnoticed that worst years in franchise's history came when the Rockies had some $35 Million/year committed to Helton, Hampton, Denny Neagle, and Larry Walker.  The Hampton deal was an unmitigated disaster, as the Rockies ended up paying $49 Million for 21 wins and a 5.75 ERA before the Braves mercifully took him off their hands.

Toronto's $126 Million deal with Vernon Wells, who I've rated the greatest albatross of all time, may have kept them from retaining Roy Halladay and very well may keep them from having any shot at contention before 2015.  Ken Griffey Jr. ($108 Million) never had a winning season with the Reds.  Carlos Lee ($100 Million) has ushered in the worst era in Astros baseball since the mid-nineties.  The Tigers signed Miguel Cabrera ($152 Million) immediately following their participation in the '06 World Series.  They haven't been back to the playoffs since.

Nine contracts of $100 Million or more have been signed by teams outside of New York, Chicago, and Boston.  Of those nine, only Helton and Albert Pujols have participated in a postseason game with the franchise that made them mega-rich.  Clearly, the Twins have reason to believe Mauer could be more like Pujols than the other eight.  He has done unprecedented things in his first five seasons.  He has also missed a substantial amount of time due to back and knee issues.

There's no true precedent for Joe Mauer, as his batting titles suggest, however, when we look at Hall of Fame catchers, there is a clear trend towards falling production in the mid-thirties. Johnny Bench's best years came in his mid-twenties, after which he declined steadily, with his last truly good season coming at age 32.  The same can be said of Gary Carter.  Mike Piazza was a steady producer from 1993 to 2002, they dropped off dramatically from age 34 forward and was out of baseball entirely four years later.  Pudge Rodriguez peaked at age 27, when he won his MVP, but he didn't become an offensive liability until he was 33.  Yogi Berra faded slowly through his early thirties, but was still a productive hitter when he was 36.  The outlier is Carlton Fisk, who was a steady producer throughout his thirties and even into his forties.    

The Twins clearly took these cases into account when they elected to go for an eight year deal for more money per season, rather than a ten year deal around $200 Million, as many had speculated. Minnesota must assume that they will pay for a year or two of Mauer's decline at the end of the contract, but Mauer should still be a useful player at 34, even if he's no longer the best in the league.  The good news is, unless he is riddled by injuries, the contract should be ended before he becomes a league-average player, so the Twins will have the opportunity to negotiate a more reasonable rate in his final seasons, as the Rockies did with Helton recently.  

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