Monday, November 23, 2009

The Most Valuable Player

Today, Joe Mauer won the AL MVP award, having led the league in BA, OBP and SLG%. He was the first player to do that since George Brett in 1980. The vote was nearly unanimous.

Up to this point, talks between Mauer and the Twins about a contract extension beyond the 2010 season have been quiet. This is probably because, if the Twins have been bothering to call, Ron Shapiro has most likely been letting it go to voice mail. Why even start negotiating before your client earns the most prestigious individual award in the game? Now they have all the leverage: Mauer has added power to his league-leading hitting, he's earned a 2nd consecutive Gold Glove and Silver Slugger, he'll be in his peak if he hits the Free Agent market at age 28 in 2011, and the large market teams should all be in the market for a catcher at that time. Plus, with a publicly funded new stadium set to open in the spring, the fans won't stand for seeing their native superstar dealt or lost because of payroll concerns. So, sure, Mauer will sign with the Twins, but it will be on his terms, for the years and dollars that make him comfortable.

That Bill Smith and the Twins could have let it get to this point is a staggering failure of planning and risk management, not to mention a disturbing inability to learn from the recent past. It was only 2 years ago, after all, that the Twins were forced to unload the game's best pitcher, Johan Santana, to the lowest bidder - a situation brought about by Santana's unwillingness to settle for a home-town discount when somebody from the East was sure to give him more dollars and years than the Twins could comfortably guarantee. They locked up former MVP Justin Morneau that spring, ensuring that he'd be a Twin throughout his peak years.

Was there any question that they'd want Mauer around for those years as well? With him coming off of 2 batting titles in 3 years, there shouldn't have been. Was there some reason to think that he'd sign for less money at some point in the future? Letting him play another season only made it more likely that he'd pile up great numbers and increase his value. It wasn't as though the Twins were pushing the limits of their payroll going into 2009, what were they saving the money for? They just signed Morneau for 6 years, why not extend Mauer for 4 and essentially match that deal? As of a year ago, there were still a lot of people who valued Morneau more highly (as evidenced by his #2 MVP finish to Mauer's #4). Offering Mauer a deal equivalent to that of his good buddy would have looked pretty equitable.

Had Mauer had a normal offseason, he might have tried to hold out for more. But when he was slow to recover from his back trouble, and spring training started to slip away with no timetable for his return, he would have been in no position to turn down a contract guaranteeing him an 8-figure salary through 2014. 2009 was going to be the 3rd time in 6 seasons that he'd miss considerable playing time to injury, and he plays the most physically demanding position on the field. Had he been offered a 4-year, $56M extension with a $4M signing bonus last February, I can't imagine him passing on it.

That deal, had it been offered, would have been ideal for the Twins. Catchers have been known to see a drop-off in productivity shortly after they turn 30. Signing Mauer through 2014 gets him through his age 31 season - re-evaluate his condition from there and see if he's really going to be able to stick behind the dish. Now, they'll probably have to sign him through at least 2017, when he'll be 34. Chances are much better that he won't be worth the price tag by then. At $14M/year, Mauer is a bargain, allowing significant money to be allocated to other parts of the team and organization. Now, he's probably going to cost $20M/year or more, and for more years. That extra $6M could be the difference between a good player and a replacement player, or a good player and a great player. It could go toward signing top-flight prospects like Max Kepler and Miguel Angel Sano. Now, it's gonna go to Joe Mauer, and that's all.

We won't know until the deal is completed how much Mauer's extension will cost the Twins. But as far as I'm concerned, that amount minus $60M is the price they'll pay for failing to offer the extension a year ago. Maybe this time the lesson will sink in.

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