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The case for Joe Mauer

REUTERS/USA Today Sports/Jesse Johnson
Mauer turns 32 in April and has plenty of productive baseball ahead of him.

Coming off his worst season with the last-place Twins, Joe Mauer’s approval rating has never been lower. It’s so bad right now even Adrian Peterson wouldn’t trade places with him. And that’s only a slight exaggeration.

David Zingler

Over the years I’ve mocked Mauer’s over-the-top wholesome image and questioned his durability and toughness, but we're starting a new year, so in the name of appreciation and optimism, let’s look back at what Mauer has accomplished during his decade-plus with the Twins and forward to what should be a comeback year for the embattled star.

The last link to the Central Division Dynasty days of the 2000s, Mauer’s place on the Twins’ Mount Rushmore is secure. From 2006-2009, the St. Paul native hit .336, reached base at a .419 clip and slugged .496. In those four seasons, he won three batting titles, three Gold Gloves, appeared in three All Star Games and finished in the top six of the AL MVP balloting three times.

Mauer’s 2009 campaign is arguably the best in team history. The Gold Glove catcher hit .365/.444/.587, pacing the league in those categories, while establishing career highs homeruns (28) and RBI (96). He did this while striking out just 63 times in 606 plate appearances. The Twins, of course, defeated Detroit in Game 163 to capture the AL Central title.  The dream season culminated in Mauer’s near unanimous selection — 27 of 28 first place votes — as the American League’s Most Valuable Player.

At top form and hugely popular

With his MVP trophy in hand and the Twins moving into a new stadium, Mauer could have run for governor and won unanimously. Even that one guy would have voted for him. There was nowhere to go but down.

Prior to the 2010 season, with free agency looming in the fall, the reigning MVP inked an eight-year, $184 million contract extension to remain in Minnesota. He was 27, the Twins were winning and Target Field was largely publicly financed. The franchise had a moral obligation to make that deal. Besides, the Yankees and Red Sox already had designs on our Hometown Hero.

While Mauer would never recapture the power he displayed in ’09, he was a very good player for most of the next four seasons. Aside from an injury-riddled 2011 campaign (.287), the former batting champ hit .327, .319 and .324 from 2010-2013, leading the league with a .416 OBP in 2012.

As good as Mauer’s timing was in 2009 however, it was that bad in 2011. With the major pieces of their 94-win 2010 team returning, the Twins were expected to compete for a division title. Instead they racked up 99 losses. Mauer suited up for just 82 games, missing many with a mysterious ailment known as bilateral leg weakness.

Public's perception changed

With the new contract kicking in, nearly doubling his annual salary to $23 million, the public wasn’t in an understanding mood. The “aw shucks,” humble personality that once endeared him to so many Minnesotans became a liability. He was suddenly seen as indifferent and lacking passion.

Despite performing well the next two years, the damage was done. Mauer’s durability remained in question and the Twins kept losing. Finally, after a concussion prematurely ended his 2013 season, the 3-time Gold Glove catcher was moved to first base permanently. Playing the new position, he struggled in 2014, hitting .277 and slugging .371, both career lows.

Conventional wisdom is that age, injuries and complacency have caught up with Mauer and last season is the new normal. I don’t buy it. Mauer turns 32 in April and has plenty of productive baseball ahead of him. While his laid-back demeanor may lead some to think he doesn’t care, you don’t achieve what he has without a tremendous amount of pride and determination.  

Joe Mauer won’t win the MVP in 2015, but he will regain his form as one of the American League’s elite hitters and remind us why he is one of the best players to ever wear a Twins uniform.

David Zingler has been a freelance writer on the Minnesota sports scene for over 10 years. He has done work for Minnesota Public RadioMinnesota Score magazine and Internet Broadcasting, among others.

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Comments (7)

Dream on, David

The Twins, like the Wolves with Garnett have (or should have) learned that when you grossly overpay one player in a team sport primarily to sell tickets you doom your team. They could have replaced his stats last year with a 3 million dollar player and had 20 left over for an elite starter. He was healthy playing an easier position, his hitting should have been better but still not near what 23 million should buy.

Mauer sacrificed the good of the team to line his pockets. He and the people that signed him should be embarrassed. Maybe he is more distracted by that than by playing first base.

The Twins had ample room in

The Twins had ample room in their payroll last year to afford a $20M starter if they wanted to, even with Mauer's contract. They just chose not to spend that money.

Mauer is overpaid, there's no

Mauer is overpaid, there's no doubt about that. As I pointed out above however, based on the timing of his impending free agency, I don't think the Twins really had a choice in the matter. The contract was the market value at the time, maybe even less. There's no salary cap in baseball, so by taking a pay cut Mauer would just be putting money back in the Pohlad's already stuffed pockets. The Twins have money.

I get the frustration with his huge salary and declining statistics, but the main the reason the Twins have lost 90+ games the past four years is their farm system's inability to restock the major league roster, especially pitching. That does look to be changing though.

Sacrificed the good of the team?

Please....save the u-rah-rah stuff for high school. Pro baseball is a business, plain and simple. Is Mauer worth his paycheck? Of course not, but in reality, very few players are. The people that are lining up in hindsight, whining about Mauer's money are some of the same that loudly demanded the Twins pony up and pay Mauer whatever the market would bear when his rookie contract was up and he was in demand by Boston and NY, just to name a couple. They were the ones screaming about Pohlad being too cheap and what a travesty it would be to lose the hometown kid.
I get really tired of people who jump on their high horse and disparage athletes for accepting money that's offered to them, yet are the first to whine that those same athletes weren't worth it years later. As if they would turn down a raise so THEIR company can offer a signing bonus to the wunderkind that could come in and turn their accounting department around.
Blame a broken economic system and guaranteed contracts for the bloated, out of whack salaries that management pays, not the players for accepting them.

Joe is only good for Joe

Joe is able to make his own numbers good but put a man on base and it's a different story. Joe can't be counted on. I believe he led the team in hitting into double plays last season. It is beyond me why a guy that is 6' 5" tall basically can only hit infield singles. The batting coach needs to find some power in there somewhere. Mr. Schletzer is right Joe's salary has starve the Twin's finances. Baseball is a nine man sport and when you don't have the funds to pay but one player, your team is going to be a failure for a long time. Mauer was not a good purchase. The hometown boy thing has worn off, several years ago. Joe has been grossly paid and it has taken his desire to work away, because he already has it made for a lifetime. Joe, it's time to start producing.

My 2¢

I got here during what was apparently Mauer's best season (2009), but with the issues surrounding a cross-country move to a community I hardly knew at all, I wasn't paying a lot of attention to the Twins – a team I knew nothing about. I spent half a century and more in St. Louis, where any Cardinal season under .500 is a catastrophe, then moved to metro Denver and the Rockies, where a season over .500 is a minor miracle.

It sounds like the Twins fall somewhere in between, though, as a national league guy, it has taken me the 5 seasons I've been here to get past the abomination of the DH. I still don't like it, but the AL is the AL, I doubt the rule will change, and this is an AL town, so I might as well get used to it.

The parallel that occurs to me, given my years in Colorado, is Todd Helton. Signed to a similar (though less lucrative) long-term contract, Helton was the face of the Rockies for many years, and not only played well defensively at first base, but was an excellent line drive hitter for the team. Hitting home runs was not his forte, despite the thin air at Coors Field. Helton was a doubles-hitter, a clutch hitter in his best years, and a dependable offensive force.

But baseball is for young men, and like just about every other professional sport, including those played by women, age and minor injuries eventually catch up to even the best athletes' abilities. They lose a step, miss a pitch or a ground ball that they'd have gotten 5 years before, and so on. Helton finished in Denver as a part-time player, limited by injuries, slower, and hitting under .300, which was an embarrassment for him.

No one would ever put me in charge of a baseball team, but if I were mistakenly put in that position, I would never sign a player to a contract that combined several years and lots of money. Lots of years for less money, or perhaps lots of money over a season or two, but not both. Athletic careers, as innumerable talented athletes and their fans will attest, can be over in an instant. There may be insurance that will ease the financial pain for the team owners if a player suffers an injury that makes a return to MVP form impossible, but that insurance won't ease the expectations of fans in the seats, or coaches, managers, and teammates on the field.

The Rockies realized that they couldn't match the offers Matt Holliday was likely to get once he was a free agent, so they traded him to the Cardinals, where he has been good, but not great. The Cardinals made a lucrative, even foolhardy offer to Albert Pujols after he'd spent a spectacular decade in St. Louis, but couldn't match the Angels and let him go to L.A., where he, too, has been good, but not great.

Signing Mauer to a long-term, big-bucks contract was a mistake it will take years to undo. If he doesn't produce – I'm not at all sure that the relationship between salary and production is one-to-one, since plenty of athletes are "productive" throughout their careers, regardless of the money – the Twins would be well-served by trading him to a non-division AL team in exchange for some good pitching. Let the other team eat his remaining salary while the Twins get some help where they really need it, on the mound.

I'll be pleasantly surprised if Joe returns to his 2009 form – I think he will be, too, if that happens – but if the mediocrity of the past couple seasons persists through the coming one, I think it's time to say goodbye to the home-town guy. Painful, but probably necessary for the team to become competitive again. I hope Twins management and ownership have learned something useful from the Mauer episode.

Team leader?

Ray, I agree with your original opinion of the DH. I wonder how many dim bulb managers have survived in the AL because this rule makes their jobs so much easier.

I also wonder how a "team leader" making five to ten times more than any other everyday player can really be a leader. If I were the 5 million dollar man and saw him taking days of for what I perceived to be marginal reasons it would affect my attitude. I think the team is fractured just by the income disparity. You've got a 23 million dollar guy at first base and million or 5 million dollar guys everywhere else. There aren't that many extra balls going to first base. And he's just one of nine guys in the offense. Sure, top of the order guys are worth more than bottom of the order, at lease in theory. But his salary keeps him at the third spot in the order even when his stats don't justify it, thus hurting the team. I wonder how Bob Allison would have handled it if Harmon Killebrew had made 10 times more than he did just because he was more popular with the fans.

You are right, either long term or high pay but not both would make more sense. As for 2009? That year is gone never to return.