Joe Mauer's Contract Had To Be Done, But Will Turn Out Badly in the End

Vance MunsonCorrespondent IMarch 23, 2010

DETROIT - SEPTEMBER 30:  Catcher Joe Mauer #7 of the Minnesota Twins blows into his hand against the Detroit Tigers during the game on September 30, 2009 at Comerica Park in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Let me be the first to say congratulations to the Minnesota Twins for locking up Joe Mauer for the next eight years. His monstrous $184 million deal is good for their fans, good for the city, and good for baseball in general.

It’s too bad it's going to be bad for the Twins in the long run.

It's too bad because pretty much everything about the deal is a slam dunk. It had to be done and it's wonderful on so many levels...

They locked up their home town hero. Mauer was the only player ever to receive USA TODAY’s High School Player of the Year in two different sports, football and baseball, out of Cretin-Derham Hall High in Saint Paul. He was the Twins No. 1 draft pick in 2001, and now is their best player. As a Cleveland sports fan, I would love to see this idea of locking up the home team hero continue in other cities, namely mine.

The Twins also picked their spot well. This is the largest contract ever given out by the franchise, and the largest deal for a catcher in the baseball history. If they were ever going break the bank and spend way over their heads, Mauer is the guy to do it on. Very obviously, in fact. He is the best player in league at the most important every day position in baseball. He’s good looking, a good citizen, and a good teammate. He is the Twins.

And as if that wasn’t enough, the Twins showed the rest of baseball that the small market teams can do what the Yankees do. They can spend big and they can have stars too. In fact, they did the league a favor by keeping Mauer away from a Yankees team looking to replace Jorge Posada in next year or so. Had the Twins waited another year the Yankees and possibly a few others would have trumped their 184 miracle no sweat.

But above all the most important reason to do the deal was the Twins couldn’t afford to not pay Mauer.

They are opening a new stadium this season and needed to fill seats. The Twins have been the most consistent AL Central team the past 10 years, yet ranked 14th in the majors last year in attendance. They haven’t ranked higher than 19th in any other season the past 10 years.

Plus, once it was revealed Joe Nathan was lost for the season, the Twins needed to pump some positivity back into their fan base. Let’s be honest, Nathan having Tommy John Surgery at age 35 might spell the end of his career, and he if anything is their second best player.

Which brings me to why this contract, despite being so good for so many reasons, is bad...

What happens if something happens to Joe Mauer? Injuries are a fact of life in baseball. Mauer plays the most dangerous and injury prone position on the diamond, and already has a history with injuries.

He missed a month last season with a bad back and has been on the Disabled List five times in his six year career. His 2004 and 2007 campaigns were completely derailed by injury. As Mauer ages beyond 26 those trips to the DL are only going to increase.

Catchers are the running backs of baseball. Various studies have shown their careers severely decline after they turn 30. Mauer has caught over 600 games already and his massive contract doesn’t begin until after next season, when he turns 27. That means he’ll be 35 when it’s over and it’s very likely the Twins will look to move him to first base to preserve his body and bat.

The Indians made a similar move with Victor Martinez the past two years as he neared 30 and was their big bat in the middle of the order. The Twins are going to be under more pressure than ever to play Mauer every day (Mauer is going to be under considerable pressure himself to perform up to par), so ask yourself this: How would his numbers look as a first baseman?

Still good? For sure. Still worthy of being the fourth highest paid player in the sport? Nope.

He’s not worth that kind of money hitting only 20+ homers (and he’s only done that once) at a power position which is less important defensively, especially when he is in his mid-30s and holding a complete no-trade-clause in his pocket.

Right now Mauer is the captain of a nice young pitching staff, but if and when he lands on the DL again he is going to create a hole too big for the Twins to dig out of.  

The Yankees don’t ever face this problem because they can outspend their mistakes, or their bad luck. I only mention them now because Mauer’s big contract is being mentioned in the same breath as their big ones. The Yankees still made the playoffs every season Carl Pavano and Jason Giambi for example were not contributing but were still earning massive salaries. If Mauer goes down do the Twins have a chance?

There’s a reason the Yankees have been able to award four of the six largest contracts in baseball history. They are simply playing a different game, and now the Twins are all in.

It's sad but true. The reason why other teams don’t, or shouldn’t, spend money like the Yankees is simply, they’re not the Yankees. Small market teams like Minnesota have been successful by getting good bang for their buck, splitting their stars into multiple prospects when they get too expensive, and always maintaining a balanced and flexible roster.

Assigning the majority of your payroll to one player isn’t prudent in any baseball circle. The Yankees don’t even do it, even if it’s because they can afford to pay multiple guys Mauer money. Balance and flexibility are the keys to success no matter who you are, just ask the Texas Rangers who gave Alex Rodriguez $252 million and never made the postseason.

One player does not make the difference. Teams need to be able to plug unforeseen holes and need ample talent on both the mound and in the field to succeed. So while the Twins scored one for the little guy, they might have done it at the expense of the wiggle-room needed to add that missing piece (like a new closer), or rebuild down the line.

In the end, Minnesota has been one of the most admirable organizations in recent years. They always defy the odds, get the most out of their players, and succeed in the face of high payrolls and big market teams who can afford to be run less than perfect. Maybe they do it again here. Maybe they put all their eggs in one basket and step into the ring with the other big spenders and come out on top.

Let’s hope so, but big risks always lurk behind such big commitments. They are right to celebrate this franchise defining moment with their star player, but taking it with a grain of salt should be advised.