Joe Mauer is a superstar 29-year-old catcher playing big-league ball just a few miles away from where he grew up dreaming of being a baseball player. It’s storybook, right? Baseball has sustained itself on these kinds of sweet stories of hometown heroes. Cal Ripken Jr. as a child learned how to play baseball “The Oriole Way” from his father, Cal Sr., and then Cal Jr. played shortstop for Baltimore every single game for longer than any baseball player ever had before.
Frank White grew up in the shadow of old Municipal Stadium in Kansas City, where he could hear the crack of the bat, and he was on the construction crew that built Royals Stadium, and then he played remarkable second base for great Kansas City teams that were the heartbeat of the city. Pete Rose was a tough west-side kid who not only grew up in Cincinnati but never left the city limits until he went off to the minor leagues for a short furlough, and then returned and played with an unmatched fury for the Reds he grew up loving on a street that would someday bear his name.
Mauer was one of those impossibly talented young athletes in St. Paul -- the story goes that he struck out one time in his entire high school career. He was also, by many scouts’ estimation, the best high school quarterback in America. You know how those kinds of charmed athletes capture the imagination of a community. Then, the Twins had the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, and everyone knew that the ONLY choice to make was USC’s pitching phenom, Mark Prior (kind of the Stephen Strasburg of the time), but the Twins took Mauer instead. Many said they took Mauer because they would not or could not pay Prior, and maybe that was the main reason.
Whatever it was, Mauer promptly went to the Appalachian League, hit .400 in 30-some games, kept on hitting the next year, and the next, and at 21 the Twins brought him to the big leagues, where he hit .308. Two years later, he became the first American League catcher to win a batting title since, well, ever.
Storybook. If the art of hitting is getting on base and not making outs -- and I believe that it is -- Joe Mauer is about as good as anyone who ever spent his innings crouched behind a major league plate. Mauer’s career on-base percentage is .403 -- only Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane, among other catchers with 3,000 plate appearances, has an OBP above .400 -- and his on-base percentage THIS YEAR is .405. He is an artist as a hitter. That he has been an artist of a hitter in his hometown, that he has been a very good defensive catcher, that he has done all this with quiet grace, often for good teams (at least until the last couple of years), all of it seems to make this one of those perfect baseball stories.
And the Minnesota Twins put Joe Mauer on waivers this week.
Baseball’s waiver system can be pretty complicated, that should be said. It isn’t supposed to be public knowledge who is and is not put on waivers, and the reasons why players are put on waivers are often cryptic. And these are revocable waivers, so it’s not like the Twins were trying to get rid of Mauer. They may have only wanted to flush out any secret suitors. They may have only wanted to get a feel for the landscape -- the Twins are a terrible team right now in need of a lot of help and they cannot afford to ignore any possibilities.
But they apparently DID put him on waivers. And it does seem to be true that any team could have put a claim on Joe Mauer -- as pure a hitter as ever played catcher -- and no team did. They reason they did not is that Joe Mauer has more than $140 million left on his contract. And no team in its right mind would uncork $140 million for a somewhat brittle part-time catcher who will turn 30 years old in April.
Well, one team DID give Mauer that contract -- the Twins. They gave Mauer an eight-year, $184 million deal that began ONLY LAST YEAR. And here’s the thing: They had to do it. They had almost no choice … for all the reasons listed in the first few paragraphs here.
Joe Mauer grew up in the Twin Cities. He was a local hero before his first ever major-league at-bat, and he quickly moved up to phenomenon, then to luminary, then to legend, then to icon, and by then, the Twins had to sign him. The pressure to sign him was intense, beyond intense, almost zealous. The Twins had a new stadium (which Mauer, in his brilliance, had undoubtedly helped finance). They had money. It was put-up time -- shut up was not even an option. Media types screamed. Facebook and Twitter raged (The “If the Twins don’t sign Joe Mauer, I’m not going to another Twins Game” Facebook page got only 81 fans, but that might be due to the rather bulky title). I’m sure there were some people who questioned the wisdom of signing an aging catcher who already had an injury history to a long-term deal, and I’m sure many of those people will grow louder as this contract yellows and cracks.
But publicly, it sure seemed like the lines were drawn and the Twins’ two options were:
1. Sign Joe Mauer
2. Abdicate the title as a major league team that matters.
The Twins stepped up, gave Mauer the enormous eight-year contract that, logic suggested, could not end well. But the Twins could not worry about the ending, not in this environment. Mauer was coming off a 2009 season that boggled the mind. He hit .365. He led the league in on-base percentage and slugging. He won a Gold Glove. Who could see straight? If the last two or three years proved to be a noose around the neck, well, this is the price for playing at the no-limit table.
Look at the biggest deals of the last five years:
• Albert Pujols will be paid $240 million by the Angels on a contract that will not end until 2021, when Pujols is 41.
• Joey Votto will be paid $225 million by the Reds on a contract that will not end until 2023, when Votto is 40.
• Prince Fielder’s $214 million will be paid until 2020, when he’s 36.
• Matt Kemp will be 35 when his $160 million deal runs out.
• Troy Tulowitzki’s $158 million deal goes until he’s 35 and almost 36.
• Adrian Gonzalez’s $154 million deal ends when he's 36.
And so on. What are the odds that any of these deals -- much less all of them -- will seem sensible the last year or two? Pretty low. Baseball players get hurt. They age faster than you expect. Their careers take surprising and wicked turns. But -- and this is the point -- this is how big-league clubs do business, and the hope is that you can squeeze so much goodness out of the player in the first few years of the deal that the end -- whatever the end looks like -- will be like a deferred payment, like paying the bill AFTER you’ve eaten the meal.
The trouble is that the bitter end can come at any time … it doesn’t have to work on the general manager’s schedule, and usually won’t. The Phillies’ five-year, $125 million deal with Ryan Howard only began THIS YEAR, and right away Howard was badly injured, and in his return he looks like a shell of the player he was the last couple of years, which, to be honest, is kind of a shell of the player he was the four or five years before that. Of course, the Howard deal was pretty much universally panned the day it was made, but again it reflects the way baseball does business. Philadelphia loves Howard, and for good reason. Philadelphia wants Howard to play his entire career in a Phillies uniform, and that’s a righteous stance that as a fan I agree with wholeheartedly. That’d the sentiment of it all. But because of this, Philadelphia is now stuck paying Howard $20 to $25 million a year for the next four seasons when, at the moment, there is no reason to believe he will be anything close to a $20-to-$25 million player.
Of course, it works the other way, too. Howard was paid $355,000 in 2006, when he was beyond incredible, when he hit .313/.425/.659 and slugged 58 home runs and won the MVP. So, by baseball’s lofty standards, he was CRIMINALLY underpaid that season -- FanGraphs valued his worth at $23 million that year. So you could say it all evens out in the end, and I suppose that can be true. Mike Trout is getting paid league minimum to have a year for the ages. At some point, he’s going to get his fair market value.
But the quirky thing is, he might not get paid that fair-market value by the Angels. Mike Trout at 26 might sign a 15-year, $600 million deal with the Yankees … which means the Yankees will be paying retroactively for Trout’s remarkable 2012 season.
Joe Mauer was going to get a lot of money from somebody; there was never any doubt about that. The Twins had paid him $400,000 when he won that first batting title in 2006, $6 million or so when he won his second batting title, and a shade less than $11 million in 2009, when he had his season for the ages and was the MVP and clearly best player in the league. For the first six years of his career, he made roughly $21.5 million … which is a lot of money. FanGraphs suggests that he was worth about $115 million over that time … which is a lot MORE money.
If the Twins had been pragmatic and cruel, they might have let someone else foot the bill for the decline of Mauer's career. There is no question that the Twins -- even in March 2010, when they cut the deal -- had to know that catchers don’t last, that Mauer already had some health questions, that his greatness would diminish, perhaps gradually and gracefully, perhaps abruptly. But he was so great. And he meant so much to the team and to the fans. And he was so great. And he was a hometown guy. And he was so great. And letting him go would say so much about what the Twins were about. And there is always the hope, no matter how illogical, that the good times will last.
Mauer got hurt and played only 81 games in his first year on the new contract. This year, he’s back to hitting like his old self -- he’s at .312/.405/.431 -- but he can only play catcher about half the time, and he hasn’t hit with the power he flashed in 2009, when he led the league in slugging percentage, and he’s turning 30 too soon. The Twins put him on waivers for whatever reason, but nobody showed their cards, and now everyone writes and says that the Twins are stuck with Mauer for another six seasons. There will be plenty of good times in those seasons -- Mauer is still a great hitter and I think will be for a good while longer if he can stay healthy. There could still be an MVP-type season or two in him. But there will likely be plenty of bad times -- fewer games at catcher, more times at DH, and no one knows if the power will ever return.
But this is how the baseball system works. Someone had to pay for the greatness of the young Joe Mauer. That someone, in this case, turned out to be the team that has benefited from that greatness in the city where Joe Mauer grew up. That, I guess, is what passes for a touching story in baseball today.